Sermon Text: When We Disagree...
I love stories about clueless clergy. I’m not sure why. But here’s a good one.
A young rabbi was new to his synagogue. He was upset to find serious divisions and quarrels. During the Friday evening services, half the congregants would stand for one part of the service while the other half remained seated.
And eventually, sometimes, the ones who were standing yelled at the ones who were sitting to stand up. And the ones who were sitting shouted at the ones who were standing to sit down.
Each group, of course, claimed THEY were right about the tradition. The new young rabbi was inexperienced, but he knew enough to go get some wise advice. So he got one representative from each side, one sitter, one stander, to go visit the synagogue’s founder.
The founder was a 95-year old rabbi living in a retirement home. A man from the standing-up group said to the old man, “Rabbi, isn’t it true that the tradition was always to stand at this point in the service?” The old man shook his head and said, “No, that was not the tradition.”
The one from the sitting-down group said, “Aha! Then the right thing is to remain seated!” The old rabbi said, “No, that was not the tradition, either.”
The young rabbi said, “But, rabbi, what we have now is complete chaos! Half of the people stand and shout, and the other half of the people sit and scream!” The old rabbi said, “Ah, yes, THAT was the tradition!”
That pattern of argument can be found in most faith communities.
And it can also be found in the Bible itself. One of the striking things about the Bible, if you read it all, is that it argues with itself.
The argument in today’s Gospel reading between Jesus and the Sadducees is an argument about how to interpret Scripture. The Sadducees stuck only to the first five books of the Bible. And they did not believe in life after death. That’s because you cannot find a clear promise of life after death in the first five Books of Moses.
Jesus, on the other hand, agreed with the Pharisees on this issue. You might be surprised by that, since in the Gospels, Jesus argues so often with the Pharisees.
But Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on many issues. Jesus and the Pharisees accepted the first five books, like the Sadducees, but they also accepted the Prophets and the Wisdom books. And compared with the Sadducees, Jesus and the Pharisees were progressive and liberal.
Now all three — Jesus, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees — were in the same faith community. Sure, they argued, but they argued based on the same religious tradition. Jesus made his argument based on the book of Exodus, one of the first five books, using the idea of God being the God of the living.
So, the question is this: could people disagree about the interpretation of the same texts, the same Scriptures, and remain in the same faith community? Good question — and it’s still relevant.
Think of our own particular Christian community, the Anglican communion.
We got our own particular start in England, when the British church broke from the Roman pope in the 16th century. From the start in this new kind of church, there were arguments. There were high church types, who wanted to keep things as catholic as possible. There were low church types who wanted to keep things very Protestant. And disgracefully, they sometimes killed each other in these arguments.
In America, our Episcopal Church has had its arguments. During the Civil War, parts of our church defended slavery using the same Bible others used to condemn slavery. There was even an Episcopal bishop who fought as a general in the Confederate army. But the General Convention of the national church refused to kick out the southern dioceses, and simply considered them absent from convention meetings until after the war. And then they welcomed them back.
In the 1970s there was the issue of ordaining women. It was hard-fought, and people left the church over it. But we ordained women as deacons, and then priests, and then bishops, and our faith community went on. Rather well, in fact.
In the early 2000s, the church was deeply divided over issues of human sexuality. In 2003, the Diocese of New Hampshire elected an openly gay man as bishop, and huge disagreements emerged. A reporter from the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin called the area priests and asked what we thought.
I was quoted in the article saying that the church had done the right thing. And three different St. Mark’s families quit the church because of it. I have always told people they can disagree with me and we can still be part of the same church family. But there have been a few who could not accept things I’ve said.
Jews and Christians have always had to reinterpret the Bible and our faith tradition to face the challenges of a new day. There has never been a time with a fixed, static set of meanings.
So in spite of our arguments and disagreements, can we stay in the same community? I hope so. And I will not give up that hope. I have found in the Episcopal Church a generosity of spirit, an openness, and a tolerance, that I cherish.
It is needed now as much as any time in history. You know as well as I do how divided our nation is right now.
I love being an American. I remember my 7th grade history class. Our teacher told us about dissent. He said it is our right as Americans to express disagreement even with our government. And yet now I hear my political leaders implying that dissent is wrong, that it’s treason. I wonder what my 7th grade teacher would say.
I say that we must stay in the same community. I say we must keep talking with people who disagree with us. I say we must be models of both truth and kindness.
I do think the Episcopal Church can be a model of this, since we have such a long tradition of doing so. It makes me glad to be part of this particular faith tradition. We’re not the only one, of course — you can find other open and tolerant religious groups. I thank God for that.
We will not agree on everything. But we will agree on kindness, caring, and love. Because that’s what our God asks of us.
One of the prophets Jesus would have studied was the prophet Micah. Let me conclude with the prophet Micah’s great question:
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and,
and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?