Divisions and Unity

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 9, 2016, by Christopher L. Webber.

A dozen years ago my wife and I went on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast, the coast of what used to be Yugoslavia, a part of Europe I hadn’t seen before, and perhaps the most striking aspect of it was the fact that almost every day we were in a different country. Up until ten years ago there was a country there called Yugoslavia. Like Iraq and Jordan and Syria, it was created after World War I by people who had no idea what they were doing, who put lines on a map and created countries without much reference to the population. It didn’t work. What had been one rather small country, about the size of Oregon, is now eight tiny countries, the smallest not much bigger than Massachusetts. Serbia, one of the biggest, is maybe 100 miles across maybe 150 miles north to south – and Bosnia and Croatia and Montenegro are all smaller yet they fought each other, and terrible things happened. So we were visiting people who not that long ago were trying to kill each other even though they have economies that depend heavily on tourism.

That behavior makes no sense – but human behavior often lacks much good sense. Maybe you’ve been following news about the election. I was pondering all that because the Gospel today centers on issues of ethnicity and the way we human beings divide ourselves. Why do we do it? Why can’t we, as someone asked years ago, “Why can’t we all just get along?” The gospel today raises, I think, that kind of question.

We read a story about ten men who were lepers and who were healed by Jesus. Being healed, one of them turned back to offer thanks and praise, and that one was a Samaritan. Now Samaritans and Jews were about as different as Slovenes and Croatians. The Samaritans were Jews with a difference. They were the Jews who stayed behind when the rest went into exile and when the exiled Jews came back with new ideas and new customs they never could get back together. They lived apart for maybe 70 years and five hundred years later were still apart and had learned to hate each other. That’s why Luke comments on the fact that the grateful leper was a Samaritan. It’s why Jesus’ parable about “my neighbor” – who is “my neighbor” – puts the Samaritan in that role. It was the Samaritans who were good-samaritanthe hated minority and Jesus puts the hated outsider in the role of the good guy to make his point.

What would we have today, I wonder. Would it be the parable of the Good Mexican or maybe the Good Syrian? Perhaps in Bosnia they would need to hear about the Good Serbian. It’s sadly easy to update the story. But then it was Jews and Samaritans, like the people who lived in Yugoslavia, who were divided in some ways and united in others. Like the Yugoslavs, they lived very close together, separately, but in the same country. Like the Yugoslavs, they had a common ancestry and faith with strong common elements but also significant differences. And like the Yugoslavs, they had learned to hate and fear those others who shared their country with them who were so much like themselves and yet so different. Some of the former Yugoslav countries today are predominantly Moslem, others are Orthodox, and still others are Roman Catholic. But all three of these faith groups believe in one God, two of the three hold all the essential elements of the Christian faith: ministry, sacraments, Bible, and Creeds. They have a lot in common. And basic to the Christian faith at least is the summons to love our neighbor as ourselves.

So why were they killing each other? Why have there been these wars and why have these boundaries been created, and why are international peace keepers needed? Why can’t we human beings live together? Why can’t we all just get along?

This isn’t, of course, a question that involves only remote areas of the world. The divisions in the Anglican Communion in recent years seem to me angrier than ever and then there are the cultural divisions in this country, increasingly reflected in our politics, that seem to be deeper and angrier than in a long time.

Just before moving here, I was serving a parish in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut where there are half a dozen small towns, each with its own character. I was in Canaan, a blue collar sort of place but next door was Salisbury where there were lots of wealthy summer people and retired people. I wondered whether the Episcopal Churches in Salisbury and Canaan might have a joint youth group and mentioned the possibility one day in the Christ Church Canaan confirmation class and I was told “but kids from Canaan and Salisbury hate each other.” These were mostly Christians, living just a few miles apart. How is it possible? But ask what divides families; ask what leads to divorce; ask what puts us at odds with people, maybe even living next door and down the street. Does the story of the ten lepers throw some light on that?

Well, look at the story again. The one who came back was a Samaritan so presumably the others were not. Presumably the others were Jews and they should have hated the Samaritan. But these ten lepers seem to have been living together, in spite of that difference. So what made it possible for them to live with people who would normally have been their enemies? Was it, I wonder, the fact that the things that divided them were suddenly less important than what they had in common? Was it leprosy that brought them together: the fact that they all had this terrible, incurable disease? Certainly their neighbors no longer saw them as Jews or Samaritans. They were lepers, and that was all that mattered. The same disease that divided them from their neighbors brought them together.

Sometimes the things that divide us fade into unimportance compared to other issues that matter more. That’s not hard to understand, is it? If you were dying of cancer and heard of a doctor with a remarkable ability to cure your disease, would it matter if you heard that he or she was Mexican or Moslem? Would a difference of faith or language or ethnicity hold you back from seeking his or her help? There are things, in other words, more important than our differences and when they come up, our divisions fall into a different perspective, fall into place, and maybe aren’t as important as we thought. There are aspects of our human life that divide and there are aspects that unify. And it sometimes seems as if we want to be divided, as if we manage to find ways to use any excuse at all as a tool of division and thus even our faith becomes a means to divide when it ought to be a means to unite. But I think it’s because, like the nine other lepers we are so focused on ourselves and our problems that even a miracle of God can’t break through, can’t overcome that self-centeredness that divides us, so that instead of saying, “We all believe in one God, we have much in common,” we say “You are a Methodist and I am an Episcopalian; or you are a Roman Catholic and obey the Bishop of Rome – which I could never do; or you are a Moslem and call God “Allah” and that’s not a name I recognize.’ And we emphasize the differences rather than the commonalities.

If we human beings can’t work together in a common cause; we are all too likely to be suspicious and hostile and fight and kill and destroy. Is there anything sadder than that, anything more tragic: that we let ourselves be so divided when we could accomplish so much more together? But that divisiveness can only happen if the faith we profess is a living lie, if we have never really understood its meaning. Because, you see, if God is indeed the center of my life, I cannot hate. I simply can’t. To do so would make my faith false. I am commanded to love. I cannot hate. The Epistle of John is very clear about it: “If anyone says I love God and hates his brother or sister, he or she is a liar.”

What, after all, is the Christian faith all about? Isn’t it the proclamation that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus Christ to open the way of life to the whole human race, to break down our divisions, to unite us in a new community? How could anyone imagine that you can believe that and hate your neighbor? Well, you can if you have never really understood or accepted the faith we proclaim, if it’s just one more thing like belonging to the Audubon Society or the National Rifle Association – if it’s just a cause we believe in and contribute to but that doesn’t really change my life. I’m afraid there are, in fact, many what I would call “social Christians” whose commitment is no deeper than that. For many of us, our church has about the same importance as the Audubon Society, maybe less. We get the monthly mailing we may go to meetings if it’s convenient, we may send in an occasional contribution and then we get angry and fearful about the way the world is falling apart. The world is falling apart, but we leave it to others to make a difference. And then, on the other hand, when it comes to life and death decisions, if my country is attacked or critical decisions are being made, I won’t be any more influenced by the fact that I belong to the church than I will by my membership in the Audubon Society. I will side with people who seem to be like me against people who seem to be different and what will unite me with someone else will be color or accent or the superficial things that I can see at a glance rather than the deep things of the heart.

Governors of several states, many of them deeply committed Christians by their own account, have announced that they will accept no Syrian refugees. It takes an average of two years to pass the government’s vetting process, but these governors have let themselves be made captive to fear. Love is stronger than fear. I guess they don’t know that. They call themselves Christians but don’t know that love is stronger than fear and that’s very sad. We could be showing the world the power of love, and instead we are cringing in fear. It’s very sad. We come here today to remember who we are: we are a new people whose life is in Christ, whose lives are formed and shaped by grace and by this food we eucharistshare at the altar. We share one life. We are members of one body. And so are many Syrians and so are many who will vote differently next month. If we go out from here and make decisions or take actions based on fear or anger or jealousy or status or party affiliation or national pride or any such thing as that, we’ve missed the point entirely.

Christ’s love unites us, and it does that not to divide us from others but to enable us to serve others, to serve without fear. And then I think you can see how all three readings today have a common theme. Faith breaks down divisions. The Old Testament passage tells us the story of a non-Hebrew general who has leprosy and almost rejects the chance for a cure if he has to go to Israel for it. No wonder St. Paul in the second reading says, “Avoid wrangling over words.” We don’t change minds by wrangling; we change hearts by love. Look to the things you have in common, not the things that divide. These are readings we need to hear as Episcopalians, as Christians, as Americans, – not just hear, but take to heart. Faith unites, love unites, look to the things we have in common, and turn back to give thanks as the Samaritan did to the God who is able to transform all life through faith and the power of love.

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