Involved in Mankind

A sermon delivered at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on January 8, 2016, all-saints

by Christopher L. Webber.

Eight or nine years ago I found myself serving a new congregation in the northwest corner of Connecticut, in a beautiful 19th century building in the classic New England mold: white painted woodwork, flat ceiling, with a beautiful cut glass chandelier In the center and the choir in a gallery at the back. My first Sunday there we were going along very nicely until we got to the offertory. I was preparing the altar with the bread and wine when I heard the choir launch into an offertory anthem: “I come to the garden alone . . .”

Maybe you grew up Baptist or Methodist and remember how it goes: “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. . .” If you don’t know it, you can download a You tube version of it by Elvis Presley.

Elsewhere in the State of Connecticut there’s Yale University where Harold Bloom is still teaching as far as I know. He’s older than I am but he is still listed as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and he’s one of the best known voices in American literary criticism. He’s the author of a book called the “Western Canon” which tells you what you need to read to be adequately educated. He also wrote a book called “the American religion” which argues that most American versions of Christianity are Gnostic – they have more in common with some ancient heresies than with the faith of the apostles And the quintessential expression of that faith, said Harold Bloom – and Bloom is a non-observant Jew, so that makes him an intelligent, impartial observer – and the quintessential expression of American gnosticism, says Bloom, is the hymn, “I come to the garden alone. . .“

After the service I arranged with the choir director to have lunch at our first opportunity and we met regularly thereafter to make sure we were both on the same page.

“I alone” – remember those words from the late campaign? “I alone,” there’s a deep-seated part of the American character, that resonates to those words: “I alone . . .” I was brought up to believe in “American individualism” and only when I went to seminary did I begin to see the world in another light and I’m not sure that I’ve gotten reprogrammed yet. But we have had a unique opportunity in this America Onecountry to be individuals and lots of us aren’t ready to admit that it’s over. This was the country where everyone could follow their own vision. There was always room out west if you didn’t like it where you were. “Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above; don’t fence me in.” I’m not going to sing that one for you but I checked and you can get Gene Autry and Roy Rogers and Bing Crosby to sing it for you on the tube. “Don’t fence me in – let me ride to the ridge where the west commences” And there was lots of land out there. Maybe there were some inconvenient native Americans there, but Tom Mix and the Lone Ranger and maybe John Wayne would take care of that.

We had this notion that we could be ourselves, whatever that might be. Unconstrained by convention. Free to be ourselves, if only we knew who we really are. But the problem with individualism – well, there are lots of problems with individualism! – but one problem with individualism is that it relies on the emotions, it asks how I feel about things rather than how things really are. It makes me feel good to shout “Build a wall” but if you win the election, how will you really do it?

Arthur Schlesinger once summed up the American character this way: It includes, he said,

“a belief in the universal obligation to work; the urge to move about; a high standard of comfort for the average man; faith in progress; the eternal pursuit of material gain; an absence of permanent class barriers; the neglect of abstract thinking and of the aesthetic side of life; boastfulness; the general restlessness and hurry of life, always illustrated by the practice of fast eating; and certain miscellaneous traits such as overheated houses, and the passion for rocking chairs and ice water.”                      (American Historical Review 48:2 (January 1943): 225–244.)

“the general restlessness and hurry of life, and the passion for rocking chairs” So we can keep moving even when we’re sitting down. And that’s important because If we keep moving, we won’t have time to ask where we’re going or why, or where anyone else is going or why. Individualism, yes; I value it. I was brought up to value it and I still do. But what is it that unites us? Don’t we also need to ask that?

If there’s one thing that was clear in the last election it is that we have no idea what unites us. If anything. We’ve been lucky in my lifetime to have external enemies to unite us. Hitler, Communism, we knew who we were because we knew what we were against. Some would like Islam to play that role now, to unite us as against a common threat. But it’s hard to keep individualists together even with a common enemy. Can we be united by fear of immigrants and satisfy our fear by building a wall? I hope not.

Do you remember the cartoon figure Pogo? I’m showing my age. But Walt Kelly, who drew the strip, occasionally used it to satirize the contemporary fear of communism and I’ve never forgotten the line, “A door closes on both sides, remember that.” The same wall that keeps others out, keeps us in, cuts us off from the world.

Individualism was a 17th century discovery and it has a value. None of us want to be summed up as the proletariat, the masses, but individualism is not the whole story. Who really wants to be completely alone in the world? Life needs to be shared. But what do we have in common? Why do we need to have an adversary, to identify ourselves by what we are not? Fear of the “other”: Germans and Japanese, Communists, the other, the unknown, the different. Why am I less successful than others? It’s because the other stacked the deck; that’s why. But instead of obsessing about who we oppose, who we are not, why not give some attention to who we are and not my inadequate 9-5 self or my inadequate 24 hour self or my crazy, individualistic self, but myself as a child of God and a member of Christ and incorporated into a living whole with strength to take on the world – and overcome.

What I’m getting round to – if you were wondering – is the mystery of Holy Baptism which we are celebrating today as we remember Jesus’ baptism and our own baptisms, because it is in baptibaptismsm that we are given an identity as members of Christ, that we are made members of Christ, members of the church which is the body of Christ. We often use words like “grafted, grafted in” “Incorporated.” We don’t cease to be individuals. We are given a Christian name in baptism because God will know us now by name and yes, I suppose in some sense, “He walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own” but more importantly he also gives me life in Christ, a new and resurrection life as a member of the Body of Christ, nourished and fed with the life we share at the altar.

Someday, God willing, what’s left of our mortality will be carried down this aisle as the priest reads words from St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: “None of us have life in ourselves, and none of us die to ourselves. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s possession.” I think John Donne put it as well as St Paul:

No man is an island entire of itself, every one is a piece of the continent a part of the main, if a clod be washed away by the sea Europe is the less as much as if a promontory were as much as if a manor of thy friend or of thine own were; every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

That’s unAmerican, I know; but it’s true. We’ll know how true it is in the coming months and years. If environmental protections are reduced or eliminated, if Social Security is privatized, if millions no longer have medical insurance. I can’t find refuge under starry skies above, I can’t walk in the garden alone and not be concerned. Some, I guess, can if their religion makes them feel good. But “I am involved in mankind,” and I have to be concerned, and that’s a frightening thought unless I am also involved in Christ, involved in the body of Christ by baptism and given a new identity that begins the redemptive process for humankind so that together, in Christ, in Christ, in Christ incorporated into his life, we can begin to make the difference our world so desperately needs.

That puts it also in a wider perspective: the unity of the human race, We are involved in mankind and it is the role of the church to be a transforming agency within the human race.

Jesus used the analogy of yeast, that hidden element that transforms a lump of dough into risen bread. We are called to be like that: the transforming element working within to transform as we are being transformed in the Body of Christ, not alone – what a frightening thought – but together, together, together in Him. These next few years promise to be tough, and hopeless if we face them alone. But we are never alone in Christ.

There is a kind of religion, a kind of Christianity, that grew and that grows out of that American sense of individualism, that trades in emotionalism, feelings, feel good religion, gnosticism, and then there’s the ancient Biblical sacramental faith of the catholic church which we try to practice here and in a way that reminds us again and again of our baptismal identity.

There’s a font at the back with water in it so that each of us entering can put our fingers in the water and make the sign of the cross and be reminded of our baptism. And if that doesn’t do it, we’re no sooner settled in than someone’s coming down the aisle sprinkling us anyway. I remember one Sunday not long ago when we arrived in a driving rain and got ourselves inside and here came more water down the aisle. It’s a baptismal faith we practice here and a baptismal identity that we are reminded of again and again. It’s not how we feel, but what God does. It’s why we baptize children before they can begin to understand. You don’t have to understand. You never completely will. It’s what God does that matters, not what I feel.

This is the Biblical faith that many talk about, but not all practice or understand. But read your Bible. Read St. Paul, especially. Read the 12th Chapter of I Corinthians ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one spirit we were baptized into one body . . . Or look at Romans chapter 6: Do you not know that all of who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? … we have been buried with him by baptism into death so that just as Christ was raised from the dead . . . so we too might walk in newness of life. But we don’t ever do that alone. We don’t come to Jesus alone. We come in the unity of the body of Christ. And fortunately it doesn’t depend on anything as variable and uncertain and insecure as my emotions, how I happen to feel.

Here’s an obscure fact that I think is interesting and relevant. Oddly enough, the words “feelings” and “emotions” do not occur in the Protestant Bible. You will find them in the Apocrypha, in the Bible we use here in the Catholic bible, but it raises the subject of feelings and emotions only to say again and again, reason must rule the emotions. That’s so Anglican, so Catholic, so Biblical: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Let me just end with a few quotations from Anglican authors that sum up what I’ve been saying.

Here’s Thomas Cranmer, almost five hundred years ago:

I want you to know this well, good children, that those who are baptized may assuredly say this: that I am not now in this wavering opinion that I only suppose myself to be a Christian. For I know for a surety that I am baptized. . . (And) the Holy Spirit assures me that I am a Christian. And this is a true and sincere faith which is able to stand against the gates of hell because it has the evidence of God’s word and does not lean on anyone’s saying or opinion.

Here’s Frederick Robertson almost two hundred years ago:

Let no one send you with terrible self-inspection, to the dreadful task of searching your own soul for the warrant of your redemption, and deciding whether or not you have the feelings and the faith to be one of God’s elect. Better make up your mind at once you have not; you have no feelings that entitle you to that. . . . Baptism is your warrant—you are God’s child, live as a child of God . . .

“You are God’s child, a member of the Body of Christ.” That is the faith into which we are baptized and for which we give God thanks.

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