Instances of Discovery

Thanks Be To God—Sort Of

Sermon preached at Holy Name Catholic Church, Wayzata. Minnesota, Sunday, January 27, 2002--in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Readings: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Matthew 4:12-23

There are times, I admit, when I mumble “Thanks be to God” in response to “The Word of the Lord” following a reading from Scripture—especially when the Lord’s Word has someone like me squarely in its “Woe unto you, hypocrite!” sights. But today’s lectionary is in the “Thanks be to God without footnotes” category.

“Anguish has taken wings, dispelled is darkness,” says Isaiah. The Psalmist is confident: “I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living.” Well, maybe there is a footnote or two. Saint Paul, whose conversion we celebrated on his feast day two days ago, upbraids the church of his time—the very first generation of Christians—for their quarreling and rivalries. How can we escape his condemnation when, twenty centuries later and going on twenty-one, we keep dividing Christ? And while we salute the fishermen—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—for their instantaneous response to the call of Jesus, we also shudder to think how reluctant we are. Today’s readings on balance elicit from me a balanced response: “Thanks be to God—sort of.”

But “sort of” is actually a good place to be. First of all, it forestalls despair. If the early church had been all sweetness and light, we would give up all efforts to make things better, because we would assume that they had more grace in a day than we can expect in a lifetime. And if we take comfort in the knowledge that the early church didn’t have its act fully together, we can take courage from the fact that rather ordinary, bumbling and stumbling folk—remember that Peter would fail his Lord terribly in a moment of crisis, remember that Paul was a persecutor of the church—these people with feet, and more than feet, of clay could become the vanguard of the gospel. The reading from 1 Corinthians shows us that we don’t have to get it right, and the reading from Matthew shows us that we don’t have to be exceptional people to get it right. “Thanks be to God—sort of,” and “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ—maybe.”

And “sort of” is not an improper response to Isaiah and Psalm 27. Isaiah rejoices in the light—but where there is no gloom there was just now distress. The yoke that burdened the people has been broken—but there was a yoke that burdened them. And the Psalmist hints that there was something to fear, something to be afraid of. “Thanks be to God—sort of.”

It is not a big stretch from these lectionary readings to the theme of the week just past: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The place where I work, the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, founded by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey and located in the home place of Father Jonathan and Father Arnold [the two pastors at Holy Name Church], offers a setting where the situation reported by Chloe’s people—“I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to the Catholic Church,” “I’m a Lutheran,” “Count me a Pentecostal”—can be faced without fear and without rancor. The atmosphere is shaped by Benedictine hospitality and perspective. For 1500 years the sons and daughters of Saint Benedict have demonstrated that things take time, that if something doesn’t get settled this quarter or this year or this decade or even this century, there is no warrant for giving up. Benedictines, and our Institute, hear the psalmist say, “Wait for the Lord”—but then we wince when the next words put us on the spot: “with courage; be stouthearted.” In other words, waiting is anything but passive. “Thanks be to God—sort of.”

When people of different, even competing, denominational allegiances live together at the Institute for a semester or a year, getting to know each other at potlucks as well as in seminars, it is much more difficult for them in future to caricature each other, or sit idly by when someone repeats a stereotype. People become caretakers of each other’s stories instead of repeaters of jokes told at others’ expense. The Methodist no longer accuses the Catholic, devoted to Mary, of idolatry, the Presbyterian no longer sneers at the Assemblies of God as “holy rollers.”

The most profound revolution that occurs in Collegeville is in fact a theological one. People who thought they had a corner on God, who thought of themselves as shining light into the place where God is so everyone else can see too—“see what I see the way I see it”—are turned inside out, and understand what Isaiah says: “Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” We don’t shine the light, it has shined on us.

And the brightness of the light is not dependent on our batteries: Paul claims to preach the gospel “not with the wisdom of human eloquence.” When we acknowledge that the light has shined, that we don’t shine it, and its brilliance is not proportional to our power, we understand what Saint Paul is getting at when he urges the Corinthian Christians—and we are all Corinthian Christians—to “be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” He doesn’t mean that we should all think the same things, the same way. At least I hope that’s not what he means, because if he does, I would respectfully have to say that I believe the Apostle is wrong.

Nothing is duller, nothing more dispiriting, than to be in the company of people all of whom agree. I hope that what Paul means is this: We mutually acknowledge that God’s light has shined on all of us. The ecumenical Methodist doesn’t want the Catholic to give up devotion to Mary; the ecumenical Presbyterian would be disappointed if the Pentecostal stopped speaking in tongues. Theologically—in my theology, anyway—diversity is not something we tolerate because our status as sinners means we cannot agree; it’s something we celebrate because God revels in it. When Jesus “went around all of Galilee, . . . curing every disease and illness among the people,” he wasn’t trying to make them all the same. He was freeing them up to be themselves in all their weird and wonderful variety. I can imagine God saying, on witnessing the medley of devotion, of worship, of prayer, of song, dance, and gesture that people offer, “Thanks be to me!”

I said earlier that the Benedictines have taught me about long timetables, so I don’t get depressed when things I care about don’t happen overnight. The readings in today’s lectionary talk a lot about light, dawning, gazing on the loveliness of the Lord—all of which is well and good, except if we are not awake, we can’t see it. A few years ago, at our Institute, a story startled me awake, to realize that things are moving fast, we might almost say “at light speed.”

Herbert Chilstrom, who had recently completed his eight-year term as the first presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, told about his youth in Litchfield, where he would regularly cross the street if he saw a priest or nun coming toward him, so as not to pass too close to a papist. I gather that this sort of behavior was not uncommon in small-town Minnesota just half a century ago. Christians routinely relegated each other to hell.

Herb then said that a highlight of his recent retirement party was his welcoming Archbishop John Roach to the festivities. Think about it: Within a single lifetime to go from crossing the street to avoid a nun to welcoming your good friend, the archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, to your retirement party. In a way, it’s no less dramatic than the fall of the Berlin Wall. The second half of the twentieth century saw lots of revolutions and reversals. If someone tells you that ecumenism is “dead in the water,” just tell them the Herb Chilstrom story. It’s one to which we can respond wholeheartedly, not just sort of: “Thanks be to God!”

When human interaction starts moving, it’s hard to stop it, and impossible to know exactly where it will go. I suspect that the people of Litchfield in the 1950s would have laughed in disbelief had anybody hallucinated that Herb Chilstrom would be a close friend of the archbishop, but nowadays we’d be surprised if he weren’t. The unimaginable becomes routine. And remember: Catholics and Lutherans thought of each other as on the slippery slope to hell. Yes, remember: They—your grandparents, maybe your parents, possibly even you—really thought this. There were a few visionary oddball exceptions, but the norm was a sharp line drawn between those “in”—us—and those “out”—them. Today’s oddballs are the reactionaries who keep insisting that the line is still there where they claim it has “always” been. They need to be reminded by Cardinal Newman that “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

“Thinking outside the box” is something we’re encouraged to do—at school and at work. The ecumenical movement has taught us to do the same at church, and not just thinking outside the box, but also rethinking the shape and the size of the box itself. Herb Chilstrom and John Roach learned that it’s a lot bigger than they thought, and has more dimensions than they suspected. The box is still shape-shifting, in ways that may disorient us, but that we cannot forestall.

The fact that the shape-shifting cannot be forestalled does not prevent people’s trying. Recently there appeared in the St. Cloud Times an advertisement from a very conservative pastor who argued that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are in no way the same God. If I line up all the good things I can say about my God and all the bad things I can say about yours, guess what?—I’ll conclude that they are not the same God.

I believe that many, probably most, American Christians have assumed that in all the recent joint services when priests, rabbis, and imams have prayed for our nation, the prayers were being sent to the same address, or would at least be forwarded and not dropped into a dead letter box. If this is what we think, what’s to stop our welcoming adherents of many other faiths to our own retirement parties?

Christians have, for the most part over the past couple of thousand years, considered that God allows other religions to exist only because of human sin, and they are there as a challenge from God: Convert them, whatever it takes. But maybe there is another answer to the question why there are all these other religions: Maybe God has a positive purpose for them. Would that answer be any more astonishing than what Herb Chilstrom and John Roach discovered? One lesson of history is that I should be suspicious of my certainties, especially when those certainties exclude people unlike me. Following Jesus might for us, as it did for Peter, Andrew, James, and John, lead to places we never dreamed of.

It’s an exciting, baffling, even discombobulating time to be alive. Everything is in motion. The light is shining, we are maybe only half awake, and it would be so comfortable to fall back asleep. Isaiah says that anguish has taken wing—but anguish is all around us, and has a date on the calendar: 9/11. The psalmist says, “I believe I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living,” but note that this is future—“shall see”—and in the meantime, “I will wait for the Lord with courage.” Paul wants rivalries to cease, but in the name of “absolute truth” we want to hold on to them. And Jesus says, “Come,” though I’m not sure I want to. “Thanks be to God—sort of,” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ—maybe.” But you see, it is precisely because of the “sort of” and the “maybe”—which are, in my view, the very power of the gospel, the incentive to keep awake—that I can say, wholeheartedly, “Thanks be to God” and “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.