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Epiphany 3

January 27, 2008
The Rev. Denise Giardina

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, I Cor 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

It’s easy to forget when reading scripture that Paul’s Epistles are actual letters or portions of letters to real congregations, rather than some sort of theological discourse that Paul thought would be read thousands of years in the future. The people in the Bible, in general, perhaps seem somewhat unreal to us. Today’s Epistle reminds us that Paul was speaking to living, breathing people in actual churches, and was himself a real, and flawed, man. In other words, a human being.

In his opening to the people of Corinth, Paul worries about divisions in that congregation. He has this information, he says, from Chloe’s people. And I have to stop and point out, by the way, that Chloe must be a woman. A woman who sounds like she is in charge of something. I make that point because part of what I want to talk about today concerns people, still in our church, the Episcopal Church, who do not agree with a full role for women in the leadership of this church – especially a woman presiding bishop.

But back to Paul. “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people,” Paul says, “that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas (Peter)’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

And then he wracks his memory about his own actions and we realize that just like many of us, Paul has his senior moments. He says, Well, I’ve only ever baptized two of you, Crispus and Gaius. And I sure didn’t baptize you in my own name. Oh, but maybe I baptized that Stephanas family over there too. And I just don’t remember if I baptized anybody else. Maybe, maybe not.”

This is a person talking, not some plaster saint. As a historian I find this passage to be a remarkable insight into the humanity of those folks who started this amazing venture we call the Christian church. And make no mistake, though the incarnation of Christ, and his death and resurrection were the central and motivating events, it was these people who remained either as witnesses of Jesus’s life, or as new converts--Peter and Paul and Barnabus and Apollos and James and John as well as Mary Magdalene and Chloe and Priscilla – these people began this church. And another thing that is very clear from this passage, in addition to its picture of the humanity of those involved, is that they didn’t always agree with one another.

This is an important point to note, so I’ll repeat it. The earliest founders of the Christian movement did not always agree with each other. Not only that, but elsewhere in scripture we learn that from the very beginning, people in the church argued about whether some people should be excluded. Many early Christians thought Gentiles, non-Jews, had no place in the church. Or at least, they had to be circumcised and become Jews before they could become Christians. Even Peter, that rock upon whom Jesus founded his church, wavered. Paul in his letter to the Galatians accused Peter of changing his mind and turning his back on gentile Christians.

And this is also important to note. Because today we see a church divided – I mean specifically the Episcopal Church -- where people disagree with one another, where some people would like to treat other members of the church as second-class Christians, or even say they are not Christians at all and should be excluded as especially sinful. And that is unfortunately nothing new, as scripture and church history make clear.

Three things are at special issue here – unity, diversity, and division. The first two are to be welcomed, the last to be avoided. Paul in today’s epistle pleads for unity and points out that Christ has not been divided. And unity is a goal we hope and strive for. But Paul also witnesses to the diversity of the church in Corinth, and it is important to note what he does not say. He does not say, This group that identifies with me is right, and everyone else is wrong. He does not say the group that claims Christ is pure and everyone else is sinful. He makes clear later in the letter to the Corinthians that the highest value that Christians possess is love. Everything must be held up and examined in the light of love. Paul does not turn his back on the followers of Apollos or Peter or Chloe or anyone else, nor does he say that members of any of those groups are barred from exercising their ministry. All he does is to remind those followers that their common calling is to follow Christ, who is not divided.

Unity is to be sought and to be cherished. Diversity is to be honored, and also to be cherished, for it allows us to come with our many perspectives and various gifts and to share those gifts. What one needs to know, another teaches; what one lacks, another provides. Diversity, when it is honored, leads to greater unity. But division is something else. And because Paul opens so urgently with this message to the Corinthians, we might wonder if those diverse Corinthians might have fallen into the trap of believing that their group was superior to other groups. Perhaps those claiming Paul thought those who preferred Peter were more stupid, or those who followed Christ thought those who like Apollos were going to hell. If so, they became dividers.

A divider says, I am pure, and you are not. A divider says, we all may have our weaknesses and our sins, but you are especially weak or especially sinful, and so you cannot be allowed into any leadership position. A divider says, you--by the very nature of who you are—are not fit for the Kingdom of God. Such division, when it is introduced, poisons the community that is the Church. And while diversity must be cherished, division must be opposed. Diversity must be tolerated, division must not be. Division should not be opposed in a way that expels the divider, and yet it must be opposed in a way that makes clear the divider can not be allowed to have his or her own way. For division leads to more division.

There are critics of the Episcopal Church, both inside and outside, who are calling on our church to discriminate in a way that is damaging both to unity and to diversity. I am not sure how aware those of you sitting in the pews are of just how virulent this conflict has become. You have your lives to live, after all, and when you come to this church, St. Johns, you are focused on St. Johns and its ups and downs, and concerned for its well-being, everything from the maintenance of the building to tending to the altar guild, from lining up ushers and readers and acolytes to singing the anthems and maintaining the community’s outreach. Or perhaps sometimes you fell you can do very little at all, but you come for solace. And that is as it should be.

But now and then I believe it is the duty of the greater church, in other words our bishops and other ministers, to keep you up to date with what is going on, and I don’t know that that always happens. I only have a brief time this morning to say something about that. But I want to tell you that a small group of people, in comparison to our numbers, is trying to do a great deal of damage to the Episcopal Church. I will not call them conservatives, since to do so would be extremely insulting to our wonderful conservative Episcopal brothers and sisters in Christ, and in many ways I count myself as one of those conservatives. Rather I shall call this small group of people The Dividers.

What are the dividers saying? They say first that they understand church teachings and we do not, that they honor and believe in scripture and the rest of us do not, that they are Christians and we are not. They believe their worship is valid, and ours is not. They assume they will achieve eternal life, and we will not. Some of them, in their comments on internet blogs, long for the days of the Inquisition and those times when we could have solved the problem of a female presiding bishop and a gay bishop in New Hampshire with a few burning stakes. I kid you not.

If forced to apply labels I would say these people are fundamentalists who require a literal interpretation of scripture, and supporters of patriarchy who believe women have no place in ordained positions in this church, and homophobes who believe gay people are inherently and specially sinful and have no place in this church. They would have us return to the days when gay people kept their mouths shut or disappeared, when women served only as unordained deaconesses and were not seated on vestries, and when girls no longer carried that cross to lead the procession on Sunday morning. Perhaps it sounds as though I am myself being divisive by calling them out. But the cliché has come true – there is room in my church for them, but there would be no room in their church for me.

The fruits of the dividers are becoming known in a predictable way. For when one is pure, and others are not, when one is saved and others are not, one tends to separate oneself from the sinful. I recall, growing up in southern West Virginia, the great variety of little congregations, splitting off from hollow to hollow, because Uncle Luther got mad at cousin Alvin and went off and started his own church. We see the organizations of the dividers growing like topsy in just that way, not because they are attracting great numbers to their cause, but because it is the nature of dividers to continue to divide. I will freely admit to you, I cannot keep all these groups straight. We have the Common Cause Partnership, the Windsor bishops, the Global South, the Reform Episcopalians, and an alphabet soup of groups-- CANA. AMiA. ACI. CAN. AAC. FiF, APA. Many of these people have indeed left the Episcopal Church already but others remain, and all continue to harass this church and to frighten some of its leaders including, I believe, our own bishop.

An investigation by the Diocese of Washington found that the dividers are receiving funding from a number of billionaires, including a reclusive man named Harold Ahmanson who yearns for the United States to be a theocracy, and Richard Mellon Scaife of Pittsburgh, a man with numerous marriages and open infidelities who would still punish the Episcopal Church for its inclusion of gays and lesbians.

It is within this divisive context that this church, St. Johns, has taken a stand for inclusion, for diversity, and therefore, for unity and for justice. As you know we are in the midst of a search for a new rector. This vestry, this search committee, this church, has affirmed that this search will not discriminate because of sexual orientation.

St. Johns is a gospel church. The Episcopal Church is a gospel church. We are a church that, in the words of Paul, follows Christ, who is not divided, even though we are ourselves diverse. You know the phrase—What would Jesus do? We might also ask, Who would Jesus discriminate against?

Jesus would not discriminate against Samaritans. Jesus would not discriminate against tax collectors. He would not discriminate against Romans, or lepers, or women. He would not discriminate against gay people, and if he happened to be gay – and we don’t know one way or the other – he would not discriminate against straight people.

In today’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry. He fulfils, we are told, the prophecy, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. For those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” And Jesus himself began to proclaim, “The Kingdom of God has come near.” Then he went to the Sea of Galilee to call his first disciples to go fish for people.

And how did Jesus plan to fish for people? Here’s what he did NOT do. He did not go to Petsmart. He did not go stand in front of the fish tank and point and say, “I’ll take one of those pretty angel fish, and two of those neons with the shiny colors on their sides, and a catfish. But I don’t want any of those terrible guppies.” He did not stand and watch while the salesman chased around a fish or two of his choosing with one of those little nets.

No. Jesus Christ put out a net big enough to hold the entire world. And he put out that net and caught humanity, every last one of us, all jumbled together, piled in so close and tightly packed we can’t escape one another. Bad news for the dividers, for they are going to wake up on the other side, across the Jordan, as the old hymns say, and find they haven’t got rid of us after all. Christ is going to haul us all in. Nor will he ever let us go. Thank God for that. And may God give the Episcopal Church strength and courage to witness to that truth.