Aiming Our Faith Toward Truth – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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Some time ago on a Sunday celebrating ecumenism, I exchanged sanctuaries with a colleague in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the “ELCA”), with whom The Episcopal Church shares “full Communion.”[i]  In addition to preaching, rather than bringing our “native’ liturgies to one another’s congregations, each of us presided in the other’s customary.  That is, I led the prayers from the “LBW,” the Lutheran Book of Worship, and he led prayers from our “BCP,” that once-again-familiar Book of Common Prayer, which returned to our pews just this Friday-before-last [Thanks be to God for pew racks![ii]  We are Episcopalians once again …].

In the Lutheran liturgy, I (as instructed) started the service standing next to their prominent baptismal font and began – before anything else – with a confession of sin, then followed by an organ prelude and entrance hymn.  That confession’s priority generated a sense of immediacy and necessity, an experience reminding me of the Roman Catholic masses of my childhood, when, just before Communion, the priest would announce, “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb,” to which we in the congregation would respond, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”[iii]  Even as a very young person, I intuitively believed both those claims and that formula: that is, I recognized my own liabilities, and, with my admission thereof, I held faith in God’s capacity for mercy.

In our Episcopal liturgy, we follow the “Opening Acclamation” – “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit …” [you know the one] – with the “Collect for Purity.”  Because we pray this collect so often, its words can float thoughtlessly by us.  Therefore, I invite you to lend the prayer a fresh hearing:

Almighty God,
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord.  Amen.[iv]

In all Episcopal prayer books before our current, 1979 iteration, this collect would necessarily have been succeeded by The Decalogue,[v] a recitation of the Ten Commandments.  At Good Shepherd, we preserve that sequencing during Lent, providing a liturgical priority resonant with the Lutheran custom I described.  In our Lenten Order, the Collect for Purity invites honest admission of our “hearts … [our] desires … [and our] secrets,” for we acknowledge that none of those can be hidden from God.  That profession announces God’s knowledge of us, and our attendant trust that even as God knows us fully, God loves us … fully.

In both settings, the Collect for Purity establishes our liturgy’s trajectory, aiming us, aiming our prayers, and aiming our faith always toward truth.  From the outset of our worship, we declare that we seek to reconcile even the difficult truths of ourselves, in order that we can more effectively “magnify” God’s hope for the world.  Staying that course, our worship seeks also to tell the truth about our shared circumstance, when, in the sermon, we consider the world’s ills in the light of the Gospel.  Then, in the exchange of The Peace and the receipt of Communion, we strengthen ourselves for the day and week before us, those lives for which our prayers will ultimately bless and commission us.

While today I focus our attention primarily on the context of the Pharisees’ confrontation with Jesus, rather than on its content – and I do so because that context draws Jesus’ first focus – I also appreciate the pastoral urgencies Jesus’ response can foment.  Therefore, let us go no further without acknowledging that the heteronormative divorce of men and women this lesson addresses touches everyone in this room … all of us.  Therefore, I urge you to hear Jesus’ teaching not as a judgment on any one of us, but as a call to unity pronounced for all of us.  As always, Jesus seeks to empower the powerless, to reassure the wounded, and to reconcile himself to all the world, priorities our truth-aimed worship intends for us to experience.

The Pharisees of this morning’s Gospel lesson, however, would struggle to find their footing in such a liturgy.  Chapter Ten begins, “Some Pharisees came [to Jesus], and to test him they asked …” or, as in another translation, “Some Pharisees came … and tried to trap him.”[vi]  However, Jesus, “from whom no secrets are hid,” responds to their question with one of his own, asking them to recount Moses’ instruction.  In reply, the Pharisees can’t help but peacock their learnedness … but, in answering correctly, also reveal their motives, for, clearly, they already know the traditional answer to the question they’ve asked.

See, the Pharisees do not seek truth, they seek power.

Ecclesially, the Pharisees seek to corner Jesus into partisanship, to force him into picking one side of what Catherine Clark Kroeger describes as the “lively conflict in Judaism between the school of Shammai, which taught divorce was to be sought only in response to infidelity, and that of Hillel, which was more lenient and allowed divorce for other reasons … [In response, Jesus resists both arguments and makes a higher appeal] to what God [hopes], not to what the law allows[vii]  Announcing, “what God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus advocates for guiding principles of dignity, decency, and unity, all while the Pharisees argue for selective, legalist permissions.[viii]

Politically, the Pharisees seek to imperil Jesus before King Herod – King Herod who has just divorced one wife in order that he might marry someone new.  Recall that in Chapter Six of Mark, when John the Baptist tells Herod that “it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” the King’s new bride takes offense … an offense ultimately resulting in that macabre banquet when guards present Herod’s daughter with John’s head on a platter.[ix]  The Pharisees, feeling threatened by Jesus, likely covet the same end for this peasant prophet they now confront.

Again, be clear: the Pharisees have no interest in Jesus’ perspective on marriage!

To preserve their own power and privilege, the Pharisees use this contentious issue of divorce as a lever: to marginalize Jesus within his Jewish community, and to endanger him before the Roman authorities.  Just as Jesus identifies and avoids this “trap,” soshouldwe.

In the last two weeks, we Americans have painfully endured a contemporary pursuit of power at the expense of truth.  No matter one’s allegiances, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings brought into startling relief our citizenry’s deep divides, played out in the stories of Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, and all the political theater surrounding their respective testimonies.  On the Thursday morning of their hearings, I drove to Georgetown for a meeting, and, therefore, I listened to the proceedings, rather than watched them.

As grueling as I found the aural experience, the stagecraft of the visual feed I saw on television upon my return home jarred me anew: the height of the senators, and the relatively low positions of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh; the senators’ established seats, and the odd desk of the prosecutor, Mrs. Rachel Mitchell; the strategic positioning of specific family and friends in the gallery, and the fury of media lights and cameras and microphones pressed into the hallway just outside.  While hardly a naïve, I found the unvarnished partisan devotions shocking.  Hiding behind that polished wooden desk, the Committee’s scripted, legal liturgy seemed little less macabre than Herod’s court.  Indeed, as old as the Roman empire:

while Christ calls us to seek truth, our politicians sought power;
while Christ calls us to aim for righteousness, our politicians aimed for revenge;
while Christ calls us to exchange The Peace, our politicians exchanged prevarications;
and while Christ calls us to Communion, our politicians played Pharisaic games.

We once named our political leaders “public servants.”  However, the sense of “servanthood” to which that designation aspired seems exceedingly rare in our politicians’ chambers these days, and their proceedings demonstrate little will for any good other than their own.  Be clear, I do not propose we cheapen our own testimony by adding a Collect or Communion to the Senate’s business agenda.  Rather,

I point to the transformation of heart that Jesus demands of his disciples in this morning’s appointment and throughout his ministry, and I call to our collective attention the paucity of such hearts in the seats of our government.

I do not suggest our spiritual perfection, but, by our faithful appeal – “Lord, only say the word, and I shall be healed” – I draw stark contrasts between our Christian worship and that offensive, bureaucratic liturgy, hoping that we would lean ourselves more often and more deeply into this community of truth, and offer a meaningful opposition to partisan lies and abuses.

And, considering our world’s ills in the light of this Gospel, I decry these political theaters, praying that we as the Body of Christ would instead witness dignity, decency, and unity [… someone must!].

For as transparently as the Pharisees were not concerned about marriage, neither do our political leaders and their respective apologists have any interest in truth.

These distracting charades disguise a raw and vulgar battle for power: an ancient and active struggle for power between men and women, between privileged and poor, between who has it, who wants it, and what they’re willing to do for it.  And until we honestly reconcile that difficult truth – demanding righteous, consequential engagements with one another instead of indulging these contrivances – then these political Pharisees threaten to make liars of us, too, imperiling not only our nation, but our very souls.  Just as Jesus identified and avoided this trap, somustwe.

Therefore, we pray:
Almighty God,
to you all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from you no secrets are hid.
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you,
and worthily magnify your holy Name;
through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

 

[i] The General Convention approved “Called to Common Mission” in the summer of 2000, and the concordant took effect in January of 2001.  In late 2016, Episcopal News Service reflected on the fifteen years of the partnership with the ELCA.
[ii] Following the renewal and expansion of our Church Building, we experienced an unfortunate delay in the restoration of our pews.  After too long, craftsmen installed new pew racks barely a week ago.  Hooray!
[iii] According to the most recent update of the Roman Missal, the priest now announces: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb;” and the congregation responds: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.”  This language of “roof” implies a necessary priority resonant with the Lutheran order of worship I led.
[iv] From dog-eared page 355 of our Book of Common Prayer, I quote here the Rite II version of the “Collect for Purity.”
[v] The 1892 and 1928 BCPs did make accommodation for The Decalogue to be omitted, provided it “be said once on each Sunday.  But Note, That whenever it is omitted, the Minister shall say the Summary of the Law, beginning, Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith.”
[vi] From The Good News Bible (not a recommended rendering): “Some Pharisees came to him and tried to trap him.”
[vii] “Mark.”  The Women’s Bible Commentary.  Catherine Clark Kroeger & Mary J. Evans, Editors.  InterVarsity Press.  2002.
[viii] Mark 10:9.
[ix] Mark 6:14-29.