Listen to the sermon HERE.
The thing I remember most about my confirmation in the Episcopal Church was the slap. Some of you may be familiar with the old tradition of after a bishop confirms someone, the bishop sometimes adds a slight slap to the confirmand’s cheek, or simply touches it. Some say it’s a carry over from when Roman soldiers were conscripted into military service as a reminder to be touch, be reach, there are battles out there to be fought, and every day will not be an easy one. Especially because I was confirmed in adulthood, had read tons of history about the confirmation rite, my rector told Bishop Taylor, “be sure to give John a good slap. He’ll be disappointed if you don’t.” Well, you could have heard the slap throughout the church. Rather than hurt, it made me laugh, so then I had the problem of trying to contain my laughter at one of the holiest moments imaginable.
A few years ago, we were planning for a bishop to visit church and offer confirmations, so I asked the diocesan official helping us plan, “Is he a ‘slapping’ bishop?” “Certainly not,” was the answer I got, and I was a little disappointed. In a day like ours when people of faith are called upon to stand up for justice, for goodness, for truth, for kindness, and for love—we could use a few “slapping bishops” leading us forward.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do. Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.
There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions? An Episcopal Church! This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ. Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.
In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.
Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history. How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways? How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith? Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals. Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.
Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision. St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need. That was 120 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short. A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897. We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s. But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us. Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding: speak God’s word. Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.
The Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.
At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries. This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 2019, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.
This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided. We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.