Twenty years ago I was in Florence, Italy looking for a church. This
is a true story, and it has something to do with the news this summer
and us this fall, but I have to look backward a bit to go forward.
In 1986 my sister was living in Rome for awhile, and I went over to
travel with her, and we journeyed up to Florence, where a friend of a
friend led the local Episcopal church. But this was in the years before
the Internet and even decent phone service, so I had to do some
old-fashioned legwork to find him.
I began by looking in the yellow pages under "churches,"
but there was no mention of his parish, nor was it listed by name in
the white pages. I went to a city directory and examined the church
listings but still found nothing, even though I knew this was a pretty
big place. I tried an information kiosk, asked for help at a phone
center, and still could find nothing about St. James Church. Finally,
in a small hotel catering to Americans, I found a listing of houses of
worship, so I went to find my friend, Sam Hartman.
At his home, I told him this story, since his parish was centrally
located and 120 years old, and I asked why it was so hard to find?
"Ah," he replied. "It's simple. You were looking in the
wrong places. It Italy there is the Church and its churches, and there
are altra-culti. These are other cults. You had to look us up
there. We're a cult."
On July 10th this summer, the new Bishop of Rome said that there is
still one true Church in the world, and everyone else is, in his
term, intrinsically defective. Here in 2007, Protestants -- even Episcopalians -- are not
members of the Church.
Now there was a lot of ink spilled over this during the summer and a
certain amount of hand-wringing and Christian family relationship
counseling to be done, but I think that my favorite response came in an
editorial in the Christian Century. It offered the philosophical
equivalent of that somewhat less-than-articulate, one-word summary made
popular by Homer Simpson, duh, and here is what the editorial
Of course Protestants are not Roman Catholics. It doesn't mean that
many of us didn't grow up that way, or don't have family members in
that wonderful Church, or love its mission and liturgy and grace and
wisdom. It doesn't mean we aren't in relationship and reverent and
rejoicing about our shared history, but the Pope only stated the
obvious: we do not follow the authority of Cardinals and Bishops or
Popes, we do not insist that the Eucharist absolutely means the real
presence of Christ in our bread, and we modify ancient tradition with
honest Biblical witness and ongoing revelation. We affirm women's full
rights, like ordination. We embrace gays and lesbians. And we do all
of this because of our systematic theology, our earnest prayer, and
our fundamental belief that the Holy Spirit is very much on the move.
So, we are very catholic, with a small "c," which means
embracing. But not slaves to tradition. And Fr. Benedict didn't state
anything that we don't already proclaim: ours is a progressive faith,
loving the Catholic churches, but free, as Paul said, to new life.
Ours is a disciple church, not a doctrinal or dogmatic one: concerned
as much about the verb of God as the nouns of ancestry.
To me, that is a wonderful place to begin our fall, our reunion and
re-covenant: with a reminder of the blessings in our midst, the
challenging call of God, and the joys of relationship with others who
seek to follow one God. To me, our whole faith starts with this.
We've just heard two amazing scriptures: one of them a central text
in our history and the other an entire book of the Bible. One of them
comes near the end, the climax of two generations of travel and
struggle to be free from the slavery of Egypt, and the other comments
on freedom and slavery in the new faith that follows Jesus.
Both of them are about intentionality. Both of them are about
choice. Both of them look forward. Both of them ask us to choose the
ways of freedom and new life while at the very same time saying that
there is no such thing as freedom which does not include covenant,
obedience to God and community, and care about all of the
dimensions of creation.
Walter Brueggeman says that the followers of Moses who were at the
border of Israel were still in the midst of dangerous distraction. Two
generations away from the habits of slavery and the comforts of empire,
they were literally in the midst of what he calls "Canaanite
technological manipulation and consumer indulgence." And he's
talking thirty-five hundred years ago. At any rate, the heart of God
and the voice of God knows that these free people may yet be found, as
the Bible says, to worship other gods or to turn away their hearts from
Yahweh. So, says Brueggeman, God takes initiative and asks for our
intentionality. He adds, intentionality is running risks for the sake
of the future.
Behold, I have set before you this day life and death, good and
evil, blessing and curse. Sounds old-fashioned, but is it hard to
understand? Two roads diverged in the wood. I heard a little voice in
my head. I remembered my mother's advice. Life and death stand before
us: blessing or curse, and God does not push us one way or the other or
save us the pressure of deciding but says if you want life, choose
life, as you can.
And so says Paul to Philemon over a thousand years later. We
followers of Christ are free, he says. We've gone from slave to
sibling, if you will. Again to quote Brueggeman, business as usual is
the way to shriveled life. But God in Christ calls us to abundance.
One of my professors, Letty Russell, a premier feminist theologian
of our generation, died this summer after a full life. She wrote many
things, among them this simple call to life to our community. She said,
"The role of the church is to overcome the fear of difference and
break the bars that keep us apart."
You have come to look for a church. A cult will not satisfy you. But
this year, here, with God's grace and scripture's guidance as well as
the spirit that lives in a community thinking and praying together, we
will address the fears of our day and break the prisons that restrict
us. This year, here, we will consistently seek ways to choose life,
beyond the political limitations of that gracious Biblical phrase. This
year, here, we will affirm our catholic, inclusive spirit and rejoice
in our diverse heritage and our common hope. We will struggle with
Canaanite manipulation and indulgence, and we will risk something for
the sake of the future. We will share our freedom in commitment to one
another, to our neighbor, and to God.
We are standing at the boundary of a promise and a presence. And God
is calling us in, calling us together, calling us to life. I look
forward, always forward, to a great year as Christ's church.
Amen.Copyright © 2007
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.