Union Troubles

SJF • Proper 16b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus asked the Twelve, Do you also wish to go away? Peter answered him, Lord, to whom can we go?+

Has anybody here ever played the board game Scrabble? One thing that often happens in a Scrabble game is that somebody will put down their letter tiles to spell a word that no one else recognizes. And one of the players will challenge the spelling — especially if it’s a triple word score with lots of Z’s and X’s. Someone will pipe up, “That’s not how it’s spelled!” or “That’s a proper name!” or “There’s no such word as that!” And when this happens, the person who advanced the word will either say, “Yes it is” or “No it isn’t” according to the challenge. In short, there is a division of opinion.

And according to the rules of Scrabble, there is only one way to solve the problem: the dictionary! Pages will be flipped, and if the word isn’t in the dictionary, or if it is spelled differently, or if it turns out to be a proper name — well, then the player must pick up his or her tiles off the board, and lose the points. Or if they are vindicated and the word is correct, they get to smile a little grin of self-satisfaction to tote up that score. But however it turns out, once the dictionary is appealed to, a decision is reached. The dictionary is the court of last appeal and final arbiter.

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Today is one of those unusual days in which all three of our Scripture readings point to the same theme: fittingly, the theme of unity versus division. In the reading from Joshua we witness an ancient covenant liturgy, as Joshua, the successor to Moses, challenges the tribes of Israel to make a choice between following the Lord as a unified people or going after other gods as a scattered collection of tribes each following its own god.

Then Paul’s letter to the Ephesians describes the unity of husband and wife in terms that reflect Christ’s love for the church. And the Gospel shows the disciples wavering in their faithfulness to Jesus, as he concludes his teaching on the bread of heaven — a teaching so difficult for some of them to understand that many of them turned back and forsook him, and one would go on to betray him.

In each of these passages the tension between unity and division is placed before us. And in each of these passages we are presented with a clear message that true unity cannot come from within the group of individuals. There must be some external and overarching power and grace to bring true and lasting unity to a divided group — or a couple — of people.

In short, people cannot achieve unity on their own, any more than Scrabble players can settle their disagreements over how to spell a word on their own, just by arguing back and forth. Scrabble players need a dictionary. And the people of God need God — whether the tribes of Israel, or a married couple, or the church of Christ itself. Without God at the center, any human institution will fall apart.

And we’ve seen it happen, haven’t we? If you know your scripture, you know that the tribes of Israel did fall apart, each going after its own gods, within just a few generations of Joshua’s effort to call them to a unified covenant with the Lord. And Joshua knew it, too, that the people could not serve the Lord, the holy one; he knew that the people would soon be tempted to follow the local gods of the local people among whom they lived: tame gods made of cast metal or stone, gods who would do nothing for them but who would ask nothing of them. And so the history of ancient Israel went, from division through fragmentation, and finally into dissolution and captivity.

We’ve seen what happens in marriages that try to survive just on the strength of the couple themselves, marriages that lack the holy quality that Saint Paul describes, the self-giving holiness that mirrors the very love of God, the mysterious love of Christ for the church. For although Saint Paul starts with the old pagan answer to all marriage problems: wives, obey your husbands, note that he doesn’t stop there. Simple one-sided obedience was the way to keep peace in the old days, before Christ came: wives were viewed primarily as first-class servants in the husband’s household, without personal freedom of self-determination, and peace was maintained through submission, because the wife had no other choice.

But Paul affirms that things have changed since Christ has come: now the husband is a subject too, a subject of Christ, and called upon to obey the law of love and sacrifice which alone makes him worthy of being a Christian husband: loving his wife as himself; loving his wife, the most intimate neighbor, as himself, according to Christ’s teaching. In this dance of loving and mutual obedience, with God in Christ as the true master of the dance, a marriage can survive and flourish. Without that love, without Christ’s presence, no marriage will ever be more than a marriage of convenience — or inconvenience, as the case may be.

Finally, we have also seen how the church itself can fall apart when it loses its focus on God and turns in upon itself, placing new idols on the throne of God. Like all institutions, the church can fall into the habit of exalting the particular and peculiar personality of its human leaders over against the universal and eternal personhood of our Lord and God. It is no irony that the Western church began to crumble, in a slow slide leading to the Reformation and the collapse of the Roman Church, just at the time the pope began to assert his supremacy as Christ’s personal representative on earth. And it is no wonder that many parishes and congregations have split and divided, or wandered off into schism, when they have focused all their attention on their priest or pastor instead of turning together towards God, the giver of every perfect gift.

And I don’t mean that just in terms of personal dynamics; I mean it physically. Upon my arrival in this church almost exactly ten years ago, I restored the ancient tradition of joining with you and together facing east towards the rising sun at the heart of the Eucharistic feast — as your leader — but also first and foremost as one of you. We are not turned in upon ourselves, We all of us turn together to face the altar, all of us are on the same side of the table — just like at the Last Supper! And if you don’t believe me, there it is [in the stained glass window on the north wall.]

We are not turned in upon ourselves, but all of us together turned towards the One who is, as the Psalmist says, “our Lord, our good above all other… our portion and our cup who upholds our lot.”

It is no accident that the Christian churches have suffered the greatest division and loss in membership since they foolishly decided in the 1960s that priests should face their congregations across the altar. This change transformed the worshiping church from a grand procession moving forward together in unity into a closed circle focused on itself. Or even worse, it focused the congregation’s attention on the priest behind the altar, who was cast in the role of a performer to be reacted to, rather than as the leader of a grand parade in which all are invited to join. But I’m glad to say the tide is turning, and many parishes such as ours are rediscovering that the church had it right for 1900 years after all, and that all of us together turning in our focus on the transcendent Lord of glory, joined in turning our gaze upward and beyond our own preoccupations, is the best way to find our true unity under one Lord and one God.

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Scrabble players know they need a dictionary. Joshua knew that he and his household would only find their identity in serving the One Lord, the God of Israel. Paul knew that a marriage that did not have Christ and his love at its heart would not survive. Peter and the apostles knew that only Jesus had the words of eternal life, that he was the holy one of God. And so it is that we too know that our true unity is to be found, not in pastors, priests, bishops or popes, nor even in ourselves as a gathering, but here at this altar where we gather, in Jesus Christ our portion and our cup, our good above all other, our Blessed Lord, who lives and reigns with his Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.+