Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
Iona is a small island in the Hebrides off the Northwest Coast of Scotland. The location of a 6th century monastery and a modern monastic community focused on justice and peace, Iona is a deeply spiritual and mystical place. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend several days there. Besides worshiping in the Abbey, one of my more profound experiences at Iona was going on a day-long pilgrimage around the island. Modeled roughly on the Stations of the Cross, the pilgrimage is a walking journey around the island. The leader stops at various places, offers a meditation, then invites people to spend the time walking to the next spot talking with someone in the group – preferably someone you did not know – sharing stories about what that meditation has brought up. For example, one of the stops was at a place where you could see glacial erratics – boulders dropped by glaciers, similar to what you see all over Maine. The meditation was a question: “When have you ever been dropped an unexpected place?” The meditation that stood out for me was when the leader had us stop in the middle of a crossroads – literally the only place on the island where two roads intersect one another. He told us that “When you are at a crossroads you can choose to go straight ahead, back where you came from, or left or right. The one thing you can’t do is stay in the middle. The challenge is that saying yes to one choice means saying to no the three others. It involves grief. It also means moving to a new adventure. When have you done that?”
In this morning’s reading from Acts, we find the early church precisely at that kind of crossroads. After the resurrection, the church started attracting people a huge number of people, including many from outside the Jewish faith. Remember, of course, that Jesus was Jewish. All the disciples were Jewish. Jesus and his disciples followed Jewish traditions, celebrated Jewish festivals and were deeply aware of Jewish laws. The question was if converts to Christianity needed to do all that. Did, for example, non-Jewish converts have to follow the Jewish Dietary laws – and customs like circumcision – in order to follow Christ? And, if the new people didn’t have to follow those rules, did the current ones? This is more complex than you might think. Remember, Christianity did not begin as a new religion. It was meant to be a movement within – and a reform of – Judaism. Following the law – and laws – of Moses was a key part of Jewish identity and practice. For around 1000 years, eating fish on Friday and following feast days were central to Christian practice and identity. (Eating fish on Friday spurred the world-wide quest for cod that brought the first Europeans to the Gulf of Maine.) Those practices have faded, but can you imagine Christianity without Christmas? Traditions, festivals, and Mosaic Law provided comfort, familiarity, and a framework for living the Jewish faith. Having followers of Jesus who didn’t do those things raised the question of what their religion was all about. Is it about the feasts and festivals? Is it about eating the right food and obeying the right rules… or is it about a relationship with God? Is it about the law, or is it the love behind it all? What about things are slowing us down, getting in our way, and need to be let go of? What do we cherish that we want or need to hang on to? What is necessary, essential to our faith?
These are questions the church has asked throughout its history. We have done an excellent job of carrying on our Jewish heritage – and establishing our own traditions, rules and customs, and thinking of them – not of a relationship with God – as what gives us religious identity and what makes our faith real. This means that when we start talking about inclusion, expansion, celebrating diversity and life after Covid, we automatically think about and start grieving what we are giving up. What if instead of that we focused on what is really important – about the core values we want to carry ahead — and letting go of things that are getting in the way of living the mission we have been given.
At various points in time the Episcopal Church has worked to define these core values, what we consider most important. In the 1600s Richard Hooker spoke of the Anglican Tripod of Scripture, Tradition and Reason. In the 1800s, the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral said it was the Scriptures, the Creeds, the Sacraments, and the Historic Episcopate. In the 1970 and 1980s, The Episcopal Church said it was the five promises of the baptismal covenant. In the 1990s, the Anglican Church defined five marks of mission. In most recent times, the Presiding bishop cut all these down to a simple goal he called the “Way of Love.”
Note that none of these talk about being high church or Low Church, about being evangelical or catholic, or about adhering to a certain style of music or worship or a certain theological or political point of view. Even at the height of the British Empire, when there was one Prayer Book in use around the globe, local variations were common. What defined us as a church was common prayer, not common words or ways of saying or singing them. What held us together as a church was something the Anglican Communion calls “bonds of affection.” What held us together are bonds of love. It’s not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s rediscovering the baby that is there!
As most of you know, my 92 year old father-in-law died this winter. He was still living at home and my wife Shari just spent a week in Oregon cleaning out his house with her sister. On the phone, she described being overwhelmed by the amount stuff her father had left behind, all those things he had not let go of while he was alive. Having just visited my 90 year old father in Atlanta, I know that his house is also packed to the gills – and that the reality is that, as was the case with Shari’s dad, most of the things there won’t be touched until he is gone. The reality is that most kids and grand-kids travel light and don’t want very much, which means that most of the things – even some valuable things – will go to charity or the dump. After a week of dealing with this, Shari called me and said, “We have to start working on our own house now! It’s so much easier than it sounds. The things in my house, my dad’s house, my father in law’s house, and probably in all of your houses, carry great sentimental and maybe even monetary value. They are weighed down with memory and meaning. They – like the people they represent – are precious to us. We don’t want them or the stories behind them to be lost. We, however, need to ask if our stuff truly defines us. Do our things create the mystic chords of memory that bond us to loved ones and to God or do they get in our way? Yes there are things worth keeping but some discernment is necessary here. What do we need to hang on to… and what are we willing to give away?
This is what Jesus is getting at in this morning’s gospel when he tells the disciples that loving one another is the most important thing. Think about it. Isn’t our goal to be the church described in Revelation, where God dwells with humans, wipes away the tears from people’s eyes, and takes the sting of death away forever? Don’t we want to be remembered for our relationships? Don’t we want to be known for our love, for the way we healed hurts, offered hope, and connected people to God? These are important questions because our world and our church are at one of those crossroads kind of moments. This week the numbers came out which said that over 1 million people in the United States had died from Covid. One million – out of a total of six million world-wide (way out of proportion for our size) – died right here. On Thursday, Eleanor and I participated in the planting of a tree at Maine Audubon in their honor. That was wonderful, but the tragedy is that in this most prosperous of nations, many of these deaths could have been prevented – and would have been prevented if we had had the will to do that. These deaths are on us. One million deaths are a call to repent, to change direction, reclaim the mission that we have been given, and let go of baggage that is getting in our way. The same is true for climate. The same is true for race, for women’s health, and a wide variety of issues. The same is true for Ukraine. The same is true for the church and the same is true for our own personal lives. All these are calling to get out of the crossroads. Revelation ends with the one seated on the throne saying, “See, I am making all things new.” Though Covid is still here, the new life of spring is all around us. With a day like yesterday, you can’t miss it! That new life is what Jesus wants for us. We are at a crossroads and have many options of what to do next. The only one that doesn’t work is to stay right where we are. Do you want go forward or go back, go right or go left? What do you want to keep… and what can you – what can we — let go of so we can move ahead? What do you need to do to follow Jesus’ command to walk the way of love? This week I invite you to follow the practice of the Iona and have a conversation about these questions with someone new. Share your stories and listen to theirs. You may find yourself in the presence of Christ.