Dear Saint Matthew's Family,
It is difficult to express the depth of my gratitude for the tenth anniversary celebration that you threw for us on the 15th. The day was a powerful reminder to me of how fortunate I am to have been called to serve as rector of Saint Matthew's.
While I thought that there might be gifts involved, I was completely surprised and deeply moved by the incredible stole and chasuble that you presented to me. You could have easily purchased a chasuble and stole from one of the many companies that makes church vestments. Instead, you worked together to produce a remarkable gift that is not only gorgeous, but profoundly meaningful. It was a true labor of love, and I am grateful to all who worked on it, especially Laura Clarke, the brains behind the operation. Whenever I wear these vestments I will be reminded of our deep connected-ness in Christ, the vine, and the love and hospitality with which you have embraced me and my family from day one of our arrival in Jamestown.
I also want to thank all those who helped with the beautiful reception after the service, and all those who have added their memories to the time-line in the parish hall. It has indeed been a memorable ten years. I look forward with anticipation and hope to what our future holds for us at Saint Matthew's.
For many in today's world the word "religion" has more negative than positive connotations, and with good reason. Far too often religion has been wielded as an instrument of division, exclusion, and even violence in our world. People of differing religions have committed atrocities against each other in the name of defending or expanding their worldview. For that matter, people who share the same religion have done the same to each other; we Christians have shown a particular capacity for inflicting violcence on each other over the centuries.
Etymologically, however, the word "religion" has a very different meaning. It is derived from the Latin word "religio", which combines the root words "re" (again) and "ligare" (bind, connect). At its best, then, religion is meant to be something that reconnects us with God and with each other. Having been created in the image of God, whom we Christians believe is actually a communion of "persons" (the Trinity), we were created for relationship and for connection. All too often, however, we create barriers and build walls (sound familiar?) of separation, becoming increasingly disconnected from God and one another; and once the walls have been erected, we invest enormous amounts of our time, energy, and resources to ensure that "they" on the other side can't scale the walls.
Unfortunately, religion has not only failed at times to counter this wall-building, but has actually contributed to it in various ways. This certainly is true for Christianity, with its many denominations. On the one hand, Christian denominational-ism allows for a wide variety of ways for Christians to practice their faith in a wide variety of contexts. On the other hand, Christian denominations have often built walls of separation between each other to such an extent that it can be wondered if they really share the same faith.
In recent months, I am very happy to say, the Christian denominations in our small island community of Jamestown have begun a proactive and intentional move in the direction of what religion is meant to be: something that re-connects and binds people together, rather than driving them apart. I have the had the privilege of serving for ten years as rector of Saint Matthew's Episcopal Church in Jamestown. While there has never been any animosity among the three Jamestown churches during that time, there has been, for various reasons, a certain lack of connection or collaboration. The recent arrival of new clergy at the other two churches in Jamestown (St. Mark Roman Catholic and Central Baptist) has allowed for a new beginning and led to a significant and positive change in dymanics.
Soon after the arrival of Fr. Ron Brassard at St. Mark and Rev. Kurt Satherlie at Central Baptist, the three of us connected and have been getting together regularly for prayer, meals, conversation, and collaboration. I must admit that at first I viewed this development with caution and even a bit of trepidation. There is a certain level of risk inherent in "crossing boundaries" like this. To do so requires a willingness to let go of certain preconceived notions, some of which have deeply informed one's own identity. It also requires an openness to being challenged by a differing perspective and an openness to change. This can feel quite threatening, especially when past experience has brought into question the benefits of taking the risk.
I am thrilled to say that the recent developments in Jamestown have moved me beyond my caution and reminded me of the truth of the Psalmist's words, "How very good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity!" (Psalm 133:1). Not only have the three clergy been meeting together, but our congregations have actually signed an ecumenical covenant in which we have expressed our commitment to support each other and work together, while respecting each other's differences. This commitment is already beginning to bear fruit, as we have begun to discuss specific ways that we can work together to serve the needs of people in Jamestown and beyond.
No, we are not always going to agree on matters of theology or ecclesiology, but we can acknowledge our common faith in Jesus Christ and a shared commitment to loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. In doing so I believe we are being "religious" in the best sense of the word.
If you thought a snow-day would give you a break from my homiletical ramblings, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I guess you don't have to actually read this, but you should have plenty of time to do so, while nestled inside away from the cold and snow.
It is somewhat ironic that on the Sunday when we are scheduled to read this passage from Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, we are not able to gather together for worship as we normally do on the Lord's Day. However, it is also somewhat appropriate. Allow me to explain.
With timeless words, Paul provides us with perhaps the most important and enduring metaphor for the Church: the Body of Christ. "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 all baptized into one body..." (1 Cor. 12:12-13). As is generally the case with Paul's letters, these words are addressed to a particular community, in a particular context, and responding to particular circumstances. In this case Paul is writing to the nascent community of Jesus-followers living in Corinth, a community that was established by Paul's own missionary efforts.
Having moved on to continue his missionary work elsewhere, Paul has been receiving reports on the community in Corinth and he is understandably concerned. He has been advised of the deep divisions that are threatening to destroy the community he worked so hard to establish there. Apparently, certain individuals in the community are proclaiming themselves superior to other members because of their particular spiritual gifts, specifically the gift of "speaking in tongues". This dynamic is exacerbating the societal divisions that probably already exist due to differences in social status and wealth among the members of the community. Paul's brilliant "Body of Christ" analogy strikes at the heart of these divisions.
To summarize Paul's argument: like the parts of a human body, we are each members of something larger than ourselves, a unified yet diverse community, and we each have a role to play in contributing to the life of this community. We are members of this community, this body, by virtue of our baptisms - we are bound together, not by ligaments and tendons, but by the mysterious, enduring power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul's timeless imagery can be summed up in another way: the Church is more an organism than it is an organization. This is an important distinction for us in our current, 21st century context:
It is certainly true that the Church, as a human institution, is inevitably going to include organizational realities. However, it's also true that it's these organizational realities that often get in the way of the Church being the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ in the world). When we loose sight of our larger organic identity as the Body of Christ, that's when get ourselves into real trouble.
The recent news out the Primates Meeting of the Anglican Communion is certainly relevant here. While acknowledging serious theological differences, especially related to human sexuality, the Anglican Primates have avoided, at least for the time being, full-blown schism. Not wanting to delve into all the details here, I'll simply say that the hopeful part of me views what happened as evidence of the Primates functioning more organically than organizationally.
As we seek together to follow the way of Christ, Paul's "Body of Christ" imagery is incredibly helpful. Even when we are unable to gather together for worship on this Lord's Day, and perhaps especially when this is case, we do well to remember that we are part of something much larger than ourselves and our own self-interest. By virtue of our baptisms, we are bound together by the Holy Spirit. We are members, one of another, participating in an organic and God-given unity, even in the midst of our diversity. We each have a role to play, as we make this journey together.
As a parish priest, I am generally wary of responding overtly to the machinations of politicians and political candidates, knowing that within most faith communities, including my own congregation, people of good will hold a variety of political opinions. I believe that clergy should generally avoid wading into the waters of partisan politics, so as to avoid alienating members of their communities. However, there are those times when things are done or said in the political realm that go beyond partisanship and compel faith leaders to respond. Donald Trump's recent reactionary proposal that all Muslims be banned from entering the United States is one of those things.
I will preface my comments with the assurance that I have no intention of telling anyone for whom they should or should not vote. That is not my place. Rather, I am responding to an ideology that I believe runs completely counter to our mission as followers of Christ, and indeed runs counter to the core beliefs and values of all three Abrahamic faiths as I understand them.
The suggestion that all Muslims should be banned from entering the United States stands in complete contrast to the Judaeo-Christian (and I would argue Muslim) call to hospitality, especially to those who are considered "strangers". Jesus' message lines up completely with that of the Old Testament prophets, who repeatedly urged the welcoming of the "stranger". During his public ministry, Jesus very intentionally reached out to and welcomed those whom others tended to fear and ostracize. In the ancient near-eastern world in which Jesus lived there was a strong fear-based culture that treated those who were different or "abnormal" as threats. There existed a black-and-white dualism that led to the demonization of whole classes and groups of people. Jesus was very clear in his rejection of this worldview, calling his followers away from fear and hatred to a place of faith and love.
Fear, of course, is a natural human response when confronted with atrocities like the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. We cannot help but be fearful of such horrific and violent acts. And we should certainly find ways to counter and prevent such things from happening, and pursue justice when they do.
Jesus knew, however, that when we allow fear of the other to take root and become the primary motivation for our actions and how we live our lives, we become increasingly vulnerable to the power of evil. This dynamic has been painfully evident at various times in the history of humankind, with devastating consequences. Jesus offered the ultimate antidote to the poisons of fear and hatred: self-giving love.
Donald Trump's proposal with regards to Muslims, whether or not he is motivated by fear himself, certainly encourages the kind of fear-based culture that Jesus so clearly rejected. Treating all Muslims as people to be feared is no different from those in Jesus' time who treated all non-Jews as people to be avoided, or those in more recent times who have encouraged ethnicity-based violence and killing.
I am reminded of a profound and transformative experience from my time serving on the Archbishop of Canterbury's staff. Julia and I joined the Archbishop's staff in London on September 1, 2001. Little did we know that ten days later the world would be changed by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Even though we were on the other side of the Atlantic at the time of the attacks, London was engulfed with a palpable sense of fear. The large population of Muslims in London suddenly became in the eyes of many a serious threat. All Muslims, and even those who were judged to look like Muslims (e.g. Sikhs), were treated with suspicion and hatred.
It was in this context of fear that the Archbishop began to explore the possibility of hosting a gathering of Christians and Muslims to encourage positive interaction and dialogue between the two faiths. This came at a time when the notion of a dialogue between these two faiths was somewhat a novel concept and was certainly viewed as being misguided by many. The Archbishop persisted and in January of 2002 the event took place at Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop's residence. I got to be a fly-on-the-wall for this momentous gathering.
The wounds of the 9/11 attacks were still very raw when the two-day gathering was kicked off. There was a palpable sense of uncertainty and anxiety as forty scholars from the two faiths came together in one room. After opening remarks from the Archbishop and Prime Minister Tony Blair, the dialogue began. It was a structured give-and-take, and starting out there was a stiffness that seemed to indicate a level of hesitance, and even reluctance, on the part of the participants. Over the course of the two very full days, the mood gradually shifted. You could see the defenses begin to lower, as honest, open dialogue began to take place.
Throughout the two days, the participants would go to their "separate corners" for the appointed times of prayer, which was initially a reminder of each other's differences. However, by the end of the second day, members of the two groups began to spontaneously join each others' prayer gatherings. It was a remarkable example of faith and mutual respect overcoming fear and suspicion, and it was in keeping with Jesus' message of love and hospitality. We should be seeking ways to emulate this, rather than judging and excluding whole groups of people because of the actions of extremists and terrorists. As best we can, we should live in faith, not fear.