WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY

Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church.  All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of.  I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.

Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto!  You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”  The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.”  If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave.  Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.

WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY Jan. 18 to Jan. 25

It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity.  They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position.  Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement.  He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill.  Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart.  Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid.  But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take.  If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we.  Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.

When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week.  One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation.  Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish.  The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend.  It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.

We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach.  But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers.  WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together.  Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation.  And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.

Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve.  Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever.  I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others.  No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all.  And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious.  Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense.  Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings.  Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments.  There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one.  And that’s great.

And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within.  That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.

THE LAW OF POVERTY

This week, St. George’s hosts WARM.  An acronym for Wrapping Arms ‘Round Many, WARM is a network of faith-based organizations in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, who provide shelter and food for persons who are homeless.  It started four years ago, and we were one of the first host sites.  More than that, we helped start the conversation which led to WARM.

One December, now several years ago, we were put in contact with a veteran who had a high-school aged son.  They were homeless.  Given that they were father and son, they came up against roadblocks in social services – there were places for women and children, or for children, or for men, but no resources to help a father and son, together.  Stupid, I know.  We put them up in a local hotel and, meanwhile, arranged a meeting between leaders of faith-based organizations, social services, and the county.  It was a good meeting and we determined that – yes – the social service system is broken but they, the social service community, don’t have the spare time and extra resources to fix it.  Moreover, we realized, the faith-based community needed to step up and the social service community needed to partner with us.  Over the course of that winter and spring, a group formed and came up with the name and concept of WARM.  Step one.

WARM is step one.  The system is broken; we all know that.  But the way to fix it is not by conventional means – more money, more government.  Those things are equally broken.  No, the only way to fix it is to transplant it, to get the social ills and problems out of the dark corners and into the reality of everyday people, and especially people of means.  Hence, the genesis of WARM – exposing the reality of homelessness and poverty and brokenness to people who have homes and means and resources; an eye-opener, relationship-builder.  Whatever profound new developments and transformations of social service may come, they can only come from the building of this bridge.  But that’s step two, and we’re not yet there.

Not yet, because we haven’t accomplished, let alone, embraced step one.  It’s challenging, I know.  We haven’t yet entered into real relationship with those we welcome as guests.  Don’t talk to me about “clients” because the genesis of WARM is a more radical agenda – people of means, just as much as guests who are homeless, are the clients.  And until that distance is overcome, let’s not talk about step two.

RICHARD MEUX BENSON (1824 – 1915) Founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist

While we were hosting WARM, the Episcopal Church was remembering Charles Gore and Richard Meux Benson, a bishop and priest who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, helped renew Anglican monasticism.  Gore was a bishop who, as a younger man, “founded the Community of the Resurrection, a community for men that sought to combine the rich traditions of the religious life with a lively concern for the demands of ministry in the modern world.”  Benson founded the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE), sometimes called the Cowley Fathers after the name of the parish Benson served and in which the Society was born.

At the heart of both communities is an intentional embrace of poverty.  It’s what Richard Meux Benson called “the law of poverty – the less of earth, the more of heaven.”  To S. W. O’Neill, one of the original members of SSJE who had travelled to set up a mission house in India, the Father Founder wrote, “Try to keep the house as much to native simplicity; and keep the chapel also seemly for worship, and clean, but within the limits of religious poverty.”  Benson further urged O’Neill to avoid the English:  “…Keep clear of the English as much as possible.  I know the bishop’s anxiety to get chaplains for English work, but that is not our purpose, and it must damage real mission work.”  Living in true simplicity means real poverty, and that’s what Benson urged his Brothers to do, not because being poor is a value in itself but because it enables real and ready relationships with the people with whom they were called to mission.  So Benson: “Large premises are a serious hindrance to poverty. I would much rather our mission should do its work – principally witness, prayer, preparation – with as little of external surroundings as possible. If I were in your place, I think I should pack up most of the things you took out, and leave them in a box. One could not refuse many presents, but I felt them to be in many ways grievous ‘impedimenta’ to missionary life.”  In fact, the only way to transform is to pack it up and leave it in a box.

Kingdom transformation comes when we’ve fostered real relationships, when we have met the humanity of the other, not to mention the divinity, on an equal field, as brothers and sisters and, yes, as my brother’s keeper.  Doing so, requires that we get the stuff and the divisions out of the way – that we put it in a box and leave it.  What the world needs is a new form of advocacy and, indeed, new voices to advocate for those who are on the margins of our society – and there many, too many on the margins.  But advocacy will not happen without awareness.  And awareness will not happen without relationship.  And relationship does not happen when people of means treat those without as clients, not siblings.

QUANTUM INCARNATION

One of my favorite classes in high school was physics.  To be honest, I didn’t do well in the class; I earned a lowly C-.  Nevertheless, I’m intrigued by the ideas of physics, principally the idea that this world is not a random, thrown-together mass of stuff but an orderly, systematic and profoundly amazing creation, a created order.

For me, it’s a spiritual interest.  According to classical physics, Aquinas and Aristotle and Newton among them, this world is not only orderly but that order can be uncovered, deduced.  And, once unveiled, it points to a greater force.  People of faith call that force God.  Seeing the order of the universe unveils something beyond, something greater, something which has somehow imparted meaning.  Classical physics affirms spiritual truths.

But classical physics seemed to suggest a break where there is, in the deepest levels of reality, fundamental union.  In classical physics, you come away with the perception that there’s something like two worlds:  one, a world of stuff (atoms and mass and energy) and, two, a world of intelligible order.  Most of the time those two worlds are united into one, sensory universe.  Which is precisely what enabled Newton, for instance, to posit laws of motion.  And which, at the same time, enabled him to humbly and faithfully claim: “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”

Over the last century, however, the established, prove-able laws which guided Newton’s classical universe were challenged by what is now called quantum physics: a subatomic world, a world within the stuff of the universe itself.  And it’s not as easily, universally, and scientifically observable, let alone ‘prove-able’.  Where there, once, seemed an orderly world, established by intrinsic, predictable forces and proved, so to speak, by exterior principles or laws, now there is, following quantum theory, seeming random-ness, subatomic entities spinning about and unable to be completely observed or detected or, let alone, studied and reduced to man-made principles.  Even though this quantum world seems fuzzier than proving gravity by sitting under an apple tree, it also points to a certain order and truth and a “plan”, if you will, albeit perhaps several plans and perhaps competing ones and never one plan which can be fully deduced and turned into a Theory of Everything.

I don’t understand quantum theory, and I’m still intrigued by it.  (I’m in good company. The 20th century Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, is himself rumored to have said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”)

What I find so fascinating, even though I understand so little, is that these new vistas in modern physics seem to confirm what we Christians know about reality, that deeper level of reality, in particular.  This is the kind of reality we celebrate during Christmas.  Christmas is not just a holiday but a profound spiritual truth.  Here’s the real reality, we say: God took on flesh, our flesh, and not only came among us but became one of us.  This is the mystery we call “incarnation”.  And don’t let the flip side of the incarnation pass you by without notice, then: God also became human so that our nature, our humanity, our mass and energy and atoms and stuff would be renewed, restored, and redeemed.

John the Evangelist points to this remarkable truth in the prologue to his gospel: “In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…”  What John’s trying to do is shine new light on an old, old story — that God has always been a part of the world, not a distant, removed, faraway entity; that God has been breathing, inspiring, moving in and under and through this world, a very part of it.  There’s quite a quantum theory within John’s gospel:  “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He was in the world and the world came into being through him. To all who received him, he gave power to become children of God. And the Word lived among us, and we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. No one has ever seen God.”

The radical message of the incarnation, then, is radical in a quantum way – order and truth, purpose and plan, intelligence and truth is not outside of the stuff of this world; no, the meaning is a living, breathing, part of that stuff.  The creation has within it, already, the power of redemption.  And when God took on our flesh God wiped away the dirt and the grime which we had allowed, generation after generation, to obscure the gifts of this marvelous creation.

This’ll change the way you live. One of the keys to salvation is to live in the way God chose, intentionally, to live – as fully human, as a fully incarnate human person.  Stop trying to be more spiritual.  Start trying to be more human, indeed fully human.  Realize that the years of distance and sin and distrust have made us leery of ourselves, but they have not wiped away that original blessing, not permanently at least.

The challenge, then, is that there’s no universal principle by which salvation is earned, save for one: we all, all of us, work out our salvation by becoming fully human, to the degree that God has made himself known, already, within.  Love, then, as we know we can love, as God has shown us how to love, giving freely and generously of the grandeur of Godself in order to become vulnerable as one of us, vulnerable even to death.  Forgive, then, as we know we can forgive, as God showed us how to forgive, from the heart.  Live, then, as God showed us how to live, “from his fullness” and yet borne from within the context of this life, this earthly, physical, particular and human life which is, all the same, mysterious, wonderful, and endowed with the mark of blessing and truth.

……….

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland