The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2017
Fill in the Blank
In honor of graduation Sunday and the dreaded STAAR test, let’s do a little fill in the blank. In your own head, finish this sentence: “What does the Church say about…?” What does the Church say about…? As a priest, this question is asked of me all the time. What does the Church say about…abortion or birth control? What does the Church say about… evolution, science? What does the Church say about…politics, the death penalty, warfare? What does the Church say about…praying the rosary, about the Virgin Mary and the saints, about purgatory, heaven, hell? What does the Church say about almost anything?
And I get it – we want to know. These are important questions that need to be asked and issues that need to be addressed. But, I sense something when I’m asked these questions. I sense that when people ask what the Church says about any one of those hot topics, they want a clear and concise answer. They want yes or a no. They want a definitive, point by point, statement of belief. And I hate to break it to you, it’s probably just not going to happen.
See, at least in the Episcopal Church, we don’t have big books about exactly what we believe. We don’t have lists of statements about this or that or the other. We have the creeds, statements about God; we have our prayers, but we don’t have dogmas. This can worry some people, because definitive statements are comforting. And in an age of uncertainty, it’s comforting to have an unambiguous answer. But our Church’s willingness to talk, and listen, and discuss is one of our greatest assets. It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing that we can use our own God-given reasoning and intellect to sort out what we think.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the Church can start believing in things just because we like it. It doesn’t mean that when we come up against a hard question that we can simply blow with the cultural winds. No. We are guided by something much deeper.
At the last supper with his disciples, Jesus says, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” On the surface, this sounds great. Finally, a clear statement of how we should act. Jesus is finally laying down the law and giving us the right and the wrong. If you love me, keep the commandments. Okay, great. But then we have to ask the second question – what commandments? And if you look through the Gospel of John, Jesus only gives one commandment: love one another as I have loved you. If you love me, Jesus says, you will love one another.
And that is the guide. What does the Church say about birth control, about gun control, about racism? Those are ancillary to the main questions. As the Church, as Christians, we have to start with the commandment from Jesus – love one another. Any conversation about any topic must begin with these words in our ears, “love one another as I have loved you.” Only then can we start answering the other questions. It’s awfully tempting to jump to conclusions about what the Church says about divorce and remarriage, about yoga, about climate change; but we don’t start there. We start with asking: how are we to love one another? All the other answers flow downhill from there.
So, go back to the beginning of this sermon when I asked you to fill in the blank. What does the Church say about…? Well, you can start putting it together for yourself. Start with love; that self-sacrificial, self-giving, holy love. Love one another, Jesus says.
And, I hate to break it to you, but that probably means that some of our beliefs about those hot button issues will be challenged. All too often we come to the big questions with our preconceived notions in mind and then try to shoehorn Christianity into our answers. It doesn’t work that way. To follow Jesus in the world, to be part of the Christian community, means that we must first love God and one another. Don’t try to squeeze in love as an afterthought. That’s a shadow of gospel love. Jesus says that to love him, we love each other. Everything, everything else must take second place.
Make no mistake – this kind of Christianity, this kind of questioning, this kind of love, will challenge us. When we look at the world in terms of loving God and loving neighbor, everything will, and should, be called into question. Christianity will challenge both the political left and the political right. Don’t think you’re getting out of this one so easily. The gospel of love calls everything into question.
Now, you might be offended by this. It does happen. All too often. But this is the other hard lesson we need to take from this. When somebody says something that you disagree with, shutting them down is not going to get us anywhere. If we are going to love one another, if we are going to love God, we have to open our hearts to each other. Being offended can be a cop out, an excuse to shut down and turn off somebody else.
Think of it – at the last supper, Jesus still broke bread with Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. Jesus didn’t shut anybody down when they nailed him to the cross. No, he opened his heart to them. Jesus even prayed for those killing him as they were killing him. Saint Paul didn’t shut down the Athenians when they mocked him for preaching the gospel in the Areopagus. No, he opened his heart to them. Last week we heard of Saint Stephen being stoned to death. He didn’t fight back, he gave his heart to God, and prayed for those who were stoning him. To love Jesus, we love one another. We open our hearts to each other. Shutting down and shutting out are the opposite of love.
It’s taken a long time to get there, but I’m working on this, too. I’m working at not being offended, I’m working on opening my heart. I’ve heard an atheist say, and I’m not kidding, that clergy people are despicable because it’s our job to lie to children. But I cannot shut down, I have to open my heart in love. Being offended will not help in that situation. Other Christians have told me that they think I’m going to hell because I had never said the precise words, “I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” Rather than lashing out or shutting down, I have to open my heart in love. To love Jesus, we have to love one another. Even if we do not receive that love, we must give that love.
Again, think back to your own question. What does the Church say about…? I’m pretty sure that at least one person disagrees with what you think the answer to your question should be. And that’s when things really get interesting. Because that’s the moment when we really have to make the conscious decision to love one another. Will we shut each other down, or open in hearts in love?
Finally, of course, the Church does have things to say about abortion, about evolution, about climate change, about divorce, about tattoos, about yoga. But what we say about all those things is the same. It’s what Jesus said. All the Church has to say is love one another as Jesus has already loved us.