Pentecost 6 July 4, 2010

Galatians 6:1-16                                                                 

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20                                                          

In the parish I served in St. Charles, Illinois, the custom was to begin meetings of the city council with prayer led by one of the local clergy. I was always asked to perform this duty at the meeting closest to Independence Day because, as the city clerk explained, “the Episcopal Church is so historic.” I never had the heart to tell her that although many, even most, of the Founding Fathers were Anglicans, the Episcopal clergy were mostly loyalists to the British Crown.

As the bulletin note recounts, plans to include commemoration of Independence Day in the first Episcopal Book of Common Prayer in 1786 were scuttled when it was pointed out that Episcopal clergy leading such a service were likely to be hooted down as hypocrites. It took at least a generation for the Episcopal Church, newly independent of the Church of England back home, to find its footing as an independent branch of Anglicanism. It remained, however, very much the church of the Anglo-American elite, tied to wealth and the Eastern Seaboard, slow to adapt to conditions in America as the frontier moved west. It was said that the Baptists walked west with the pioneers; the Methodists followed on horseback, and the Episcopalians waited for Pullman cars. We kept our established Church mentality; our worship and organization not quick to adapt to the culture of this new Nation.

But Jesus was a frontiersman. He preached and taught on the move, out-of-doors, on the road. He had followers, disciples, not ordained clergy. He wasn’t about doctrines or customs – indeed he offended those who were. He was about the Spirit, about the Good News, about transforming lives. Hit the road, he tells the “seventy others” he appoints in the gospel reading today to be advance men and women for his mission. Travel light. Where you’re welcomed, share the Good News. Where you’re not, shake the dust off your feet. The point of it all is not building a Church, but proclaiming the reign of God. And don’t worry about the outcome, Jesus tells his advance teams – success or failure. For whatever the results, “your names are written in heaven.”

That stuff about “no purse, no bag, no sandals” has obvious relevance to the organizational trappings of budgets and buildings and pensions and ordained ministers. But it seems to me that it extends beyond those things. Put back to back with the Galatians reading, we see that in order to spread the Gospel and keep the mission of Christ alive, there are other things we need to think about shedding.

Circumcision – that was the biggy for St. Paul. Paul took the Gospel on the road finding that it got a better reception among Gentiles than among his own Jews. The Jews were tied down by their insistence on observance of a complex set of cultic laws and regulations, tightly ordered ways of looking at life, and particularly at religion. But for the Gospel to be acceptable to Gentiles, it was necessary to do away with a lot of that baggage, especially the key Jewish requirement of circumcision for males. Circumcision was what marked you as one of the People of God. Dropping circumcision was the first great watershed in the growth of Christianity, what freed it to spread in the world. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.”

We’re at an interesting point right now in our history as Episcopalians – and not just Episcopalians; Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants maybe all religions are at a similar point. The Anglican Communion as we know it seems to be falling apart, or at least changing radically. This is something that’s been building, like the pressure of tectonic plates before an earthquake – the liturgical changes of Vatican II and the 1979 Prayer Book; the ordination or women; the recognition of openly gay clergy. And all this against the background of a great weakening of denominational ties, so that in this room, and receiving Communion this morning, we have not just cradle Episcopalians, but Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and probably a dozen other church traditions as well as, increasingly commonly, people with no church affiliation or background at all (and often not a lot of interest in making any such affiliation).

I was reading a fascinating article recently that suggested that what is happening is that Anglicanism is changing from being a Church to being a movement. That is, as the organizational ties break down – with various branches of Anglicanism not recognizing one another and increasing inability to agree on how to agree – the Church stuff, the purses and bags and sandals of Christianity, is becoming less and less important. Instead, we have the characteristics of a movement, which is how Christianity started: it was first know simply as the Way, one of a variety of movements within first century Judaism.

At the graduation in May at my old seminary, Nashotah House, there were Episcopalians, Anglicans from Africa and Asia, several Protestants of different stripes, members of various Anglican groups that have broken away from the Episcopal Church over ordination of women and gays, over Prayer Book reforms. And the weird thing, as the Dean noted, is that they were all marching together at the graduation, all praying and celebrating together, all these people who in official Church terms were not in communion with one another. “What if we gave a schism,” he joked, “and nobody came?”

I don’t mean to say that everything about this breaking down of Church is good or that “movements” are without dangers. The great danger of movements is isolation and self-righteousness. It’s easy to be part of the Tea Party movement and say that taxes and government are bad. But when people like that get into office, they quickly find that it isn’t that simple. Breakaway movements have a long history of continuing to fragment. Garrison Keillor, of “Prairie Home Companion” fame, is fond of saying that his family belonged to one such movement, which had split so many times over issues of belief that finally there was only his parents, his siblings and his aunt and uncle.

Coming back to Jesus and Paul: they balanced the movement aspect of their mission with an insistence on community. You can’t be a Christian all by yourself. You can’t be a Christian without talking and trying to reach agreement with other Christians – even with those of other religions altogether. We are all children of one Father. We are all brothers and sisters. None of us is privy to the Truth. All of us are struggling together to find and follow the Word made flesh, Jesus. Some rules, some boundaries, are essential if people are to live together. So, movement yes, but Church also. A tension, a balance, between the two poles.

All of what we’ve been talking about applies also, I think, to this beloved country of ours, whose birthday we celebrate today. America was begun as a movement, an experiment in freedom on many fronts. With age and wealth and power have come the burdens and baggage of nationhood and empire. Like the Church, America faces enormous and unprecedented challenges today and much of our baggage impedes our ability to respond so as to meet those challenges successfully. Maybe we need to recapture the spirit of America as movement and let go of some of the baggage of America as nation and empire. But again, not easy to do; not without dangers.

As Americans, and as Christians, our call through all this is to take heart, not to tie our faith to the baggage of outmoded institutional forms, but to labor for what is right, love all others and rejoice that come what may history rests in the Lord and the names of the righteous are written in heaven.

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