27 March 2010

Queens and quandaries: Sermon for Palm Sunday, Year C

Luke 19:28-40, Psalm 118:1-2+19-29, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49


When I was planning today’s service, one particular phrase leapt out at me. I’m a bit of a history junkie, particularly for English history; those of you familiar with English history may well have thought the same thing when hearing that particular phrase.

The phrase I have in mind is in the psalm we heard as we processed into the chapel, Psalm 118. The phrase is, “This is the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

Legend has it that this was uttered by Princess Elizabeth, upon hearing that her Catholic sister Queen Mary had died, thus making Elizabeth Queen of England. There is a special resonance to them for Elizabeth, because during her sister’s reign, Elizabeth was a constant potential rival, as Protestants in England repeatedly started uprisings to overthrow Mary and install Elizabeth on the throne. Mary repeatedly and openly considered executing her own sister, to protect the Catholic faith in England. Elizabeth had to constantly swear her loyalty and grovel before her sister to spare her own life. So with Mary’s death, Elizabeth must have felt immensely relieved – while also facing the enormous burden of ruling a deeply divided England, at war with itself over religion.

I admire Elizabeth a great deal (though I should add that my daughter having that name is actually a coincidence). You see, most people, when thinking about the Church of England, think of her father, Henry VIII. But in reality Henry, aside from severing ties to the Pope, left little trace of influence on what Anglicanism became. His son Edward VI (again the name is a coincidence, I swear) tried to radically Protestantize the church; Mary succeeded him and re-catholicized it, reversing everything her father and brother had done; and finally came Elizabeth. More than anyone else, Queen Elizabeth I left her mark on the church. “This is the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The reason Elizabeth’s words resonate with me is because of her vision of the Church. She felt strongly that Christians should be united in one church, and also saw that the only way to do so was to tread the Via Media – the middle path between Catholic and Protestant, uniting the best of both. To this day we say of ourselves, we are Catholic and reformed.

There is a short poem attributed to Elizabeth that sums up her pragmatic way of seeing Truth in competing visions. It is about the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and goes like this:

“’Twas Christ the Word that spake it,
The same took bread and brake it,
And as the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.”

In other words, if you believe Christ is truly present, if you appreciate the dignity of the sacrament of Communion, then you are welcome at the table.

This vision of unity, sadly, came at a price – many people resisted it, from both extremes of the spectrum. The Puritans and Pilgrims regarded anything remotely Catholic as being work of the devil; the Catholics despaired of restoring ties to Rome and the wider church, while also despairing of a more vigorous sacramental theology that they felt was lacking in the Church of England. There were still uprisings, there was still conflict, there were even plots to assassinate Elizabeth from both sides. In the end, all had to make sacrifices in order to live with the compromise that the Church of England became, which was in turn passed on to all other Anglican churches worldwide.

Elizabeth’s vision remains important even today. The Via Media, I think, offers the only hope of reconciliation of all Christians around the globe. It is more important than ever to try and find this middle path, to unite as many people as possible. The Anglican Communion is, of course, currently rocked by anger and division over teachings revolving around human sexuality, particularly homosexuality. It is also struggling with the bait placed in front of Anglo-Catholics by Rome, to lure them into a uniate Anglican church in submission to the Pope. The centrifugal forces at work are enormous. Particularly the strife over homosexuality is painful and difficult, with accusations of heresy and intolerance flying around. People claiming to be Christian seem to have nothing better to do that self-righteously hurl insults at each other. But the thing is, we all – regardless of our denominations – have a duty to try and bridge these differences, and to be united in Christ. Whether we like it or not, we need each other – Evangelical and Catholic, liberal and conservative, high church and low church. Each bit of the immense spectrum of Anglicanism carries a bit of the full picture of Christianity within, and each bit has something to contribute. Indeed Anglicanism mirrors the Church as a whole, covering the range from Catholicism to a diluted form of Calvinism.

So if we are to fulfill Christ’s final plea as He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “that they may all be one”, then we have to accept that we all, each and every one of us, have a place in the Body of Christ – and that means being willing to compromise, to sacrifice things we may hold dear in the name of greater unity. We cannot expect the Other to make the first step; we have to individually all make first steps, to build trust, to recognize the fullness of faith in all corners of the Church, whether Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or indeed Old Catholic.

Recently I attended an Anglican conference in Düsseldorf. As it happens, I would place myself squarely in the liberal side of things regarding sexuality and women’s ordination; I would also place myself squarely in the high church Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism. But at this conference, the range of Anglicans represented was huge. The church itself in Düsseldorf was a good example – as I entered, I noticed there was no altar, just a table; and on the table, nothing except a huge Bible. No tabernacle or aumbry, either. It doesn’t get much more low church and evangelical than that.

In particular there was a fellow there I had heard about, the rector of a particularly conservative evangelical parish here in Germany. Indeed he and his parish are so angry about the liberal drift in parts of Anglicanism that they no longer call themselves “Anglican”, and have resigned their official representation at Anglican conferences (while still being observers). I had visited their website a few times, and my curiosity was piqued, particularly by the profile of the rector, who is originally a white African from Malawi, of English extraction.

It so happens that he and I ended up riding next to each other in the car to the station, and then taking the same train (he had to pass through Hannover to get to his home parish). So I struck up a conversation, and we talked about church politics.

The thing is, we come from opposite ends of the spectrum. He favors things that I disapprove of, like lay presidency at the Eucharist; he disapproves of my stance on homosexuality and the catholicity of the Church. Conservative evangelical versus liberal Anglo-Catholic. But he is a good case in point for what I am talking about, in that we need each other. He is vehemently against homosexuality. But he is also not a wild-eyed lunatic. He, like everyone else, is a rational human being, searching for the truth as best as he can. I am certainly no better than he is – we are both sinners, we both have our flaws, and we both admit that freely. And in spite of our disagreements, we both showed a generosity of spirit towards one another that is sadly lacking in the whole debate storming the Church worldwide. Meanwhile his parish is flourishing, attracting more people to Jesus. Obviously we need more like him, just as we’re doing our best here to build up the Church in Hannover. We need each other to win as many people as possible for the Gospel, because in the Holy Church of God, we have – and I say this with great conviction – the last, best hope for humanity to save itself, with God’s help.

This means we all have to be ready to make sacrifices. We have to tolerate other opinions, even ones as wildly different as those between myself and my fellow train passenger, even if those opinions may seem to us intolerant or even heretical. We have to each make the first step in de-poisoning the debate, to raise the level of the rhetoric, to love those we agree with, but more importantly, to love our enemies and make them friends. We can and must reconcile with one another, even if it takes painful sacrifices.

This is particularly true as we celebrate Palm Sunday. Jesus went to Jerusalem riding a colt through a certain gate as a way of proclaiming Himself the Messiah, by deliberately echoing a messianic prophecy. He was in effect throwing down the gauntlet to the High Priests and King Herod, knowing full well what the result would be – his certain death. They chose a particularly horrific way of killing him, by lashing him with whips, by ramming a crown of thorns on his head, by mocking him, spitting on him, then driving nails through his hands and feet to let him hang there to die, in public and in the deepest humiliation. Even his fellow victims mocked him as he hung there. Jesus despaired of the Father leaving him: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani – my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I can’t imagine a greater sacrifice than what Jesus did, and He knew in advance that all this would happen – yet he didn’t turn back from His course. He experienced the full measure of human pain and suffering – being completely alone, lost in the world, abandoned to die. He made the ultimate sacrifice.

So if we are to fulfill His vision – that we may all be one – we must all be ready to sacrifice, to compromise, to see value in other opinions and love those whom we disagree with. The divisions in the Holy Church are entirely of our own doing, a sign of our own fallen nature – but in reality we are united in one baptism and one faith, whether we are Anglican, Old Catholic, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist and many other denominations aside. The Body of Christ is one and holy, incapable of being divided – only we fail to see past our own prejudices and wishes, and perceive division, even inventing discord in order to justify our own church’s right to exist.

In other words, we must return to Queen Elizabeth’s holy vision, the Middle Way that accommodates everyone in the Body of Christ. One baptism, one faith, one Lord. Once we escape our own self-imposed limitations, once we tear down the walls of our own making, and open ourselves to the Christ present in the hearts of all of us, then God can work His wonders through us – and we can all say, “This is the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes”. Amen.