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Sermon 2007-10-14

Sermon 2007-10-14

If I Were The Devil


Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23, C: Ruth 1:8-19a; Psalm 113 ; 2 Timothy 2:8-15 ; Luke 17:11-19
October 14, 2007

Rev. Jean Clift,
Guest Preacher

In the name of the true and living God, who made us for love, who saved us by love, and who loves us still.  Amen.

As ever, it is a joy to be with your lively and welcoming church.  And I doubly appreciate your vicar’s kind invitation to preach and serve.  When I looked at the collect and the lessons for this Sunday, my heart did a flip or two.  There were several reasons for this—one was purely sentimental.  The passage from Ruth, though it was actually a conversation between a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law, applies to many other possible relationships.  Because of that, it has been set to music, and my husband and I had it sung at our wedding.  We were exploring finding a faith and a church together, and the text seemed fitting—a vow of our commitment to each other, as Ruth committed to Naomi.

There was a less pleasant reason for the flip of my heart, though, as several other phrases jumped out at me.  From the gospel:  “Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And even more from the epistle:  “Remind them of this, and charge them before the Lord, to avoid disputing about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

I don’t know about you, but I am really tired of all the disputing going on in our church.  I’m tired of picking up the newspaper and reading an account by someone who probably doesn’t even go to church of all the schism in our church, and I am even more tired of seeing and hearing anger and hatred among us.  So the collect has become an earnest prayer for me:  “that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works” in the mode of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Now I have opinions about all the controversies in recent years, and I am sure each of you also has opinions.  I don’t know you, so I don’t know what yours are, and I don’t intend to address that in any attempt to change your mind so that you agree with me.  I don’t think that’s the main point.  What I want to address is what we do with our differences of opinion.

Several years ago a retired Archbishop of Canterbury preached at our Cathedral in Denver, and he said a very important thing.  “If I were the devil, I would try to get everyone in the church to focus on issues—the issue of women’s ordination or the issue of homosexuality—anything but the saving love of Jesus Christ.”

That idea was elaborated in the first Christian book I ever read, C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  That book was in Wallace’s library when we married, and I opened it one day and found my life forever changed.  Do you know the book?  It was written during World War II and purports to be a captured correspondence from a minor official down in hell named Screwtape to his nephew on earth, Wormwood.  His nephew is an even more minor devil who is assigned to one particular man with the task of getting him into hell.  The uncomfortable theory is that every one of us has not only a guardian angel (which we long for), but also our own particular tempter, working in our heads and hearts to get us to hell.  Some of the advice sounds so much like some of the stuff that runs through our minds that it strikes a lot of discomfort in us.

Yet, of course, Lewis’s goal in writing of these common human experiences is to be warned that such negative thinking and acting, even in the small things of life, is leading us the wrong way.  In the text, God is always referred to as the “Enemy,” and Uncle Screwtape always explores what in the world God is about.  He says over and over that God SEEMS to love the wretched little creatures he has made, but, he says, we in hell know that couldn’t be true, so what is he trying to do with them?  Since he cannot really love them, what is up to?  That’s the way the book works—everything is to be taken upside down, and the idea that love is possible is simply dismissed as absurd.

There is one devastating chapter, for example, where Screwtape advises Wormwood how to use the relationship between his “patient” and the man’s mother.  He says that he probably can’t keep the patient from praying for his mother, but Wormwood must make sure that his prayers are always very “spiritual” (and he puts that in quotes) and never about her rheumatism.  He says this will keep the patient’s attention on what he regards as her sins, and I quote, “by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself.”

In a later letter, he turns his attention to how to make even his patient’s belonging to a church into material for getting him into hell.  He says if he can’t be kept out of the church, “he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it.”  He speaks of working up hatred about all the practices which differ, and here I quote at length:

“We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples.  You would think they could not fail to see the application.  You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry.  And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour.  Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.

Let me read that last sentence again.  [Repeat]  It really speaks to me in the midst of our church controversies today.  What would it look like if, instead of railing at one another, we could become a positive hotbed of charity and humility?  I think it might look a lot as if God’s grace were always preceding and following us, as the collect today prays for.

Lewis in this passage is talking about what we call churchmanship—different preferences with reference to how we worship, but today, thank God, we aren’t so caught up in that old controversy—one over which people in former times fought bitter battles with one another.  We have our new controversies, but Lewis’s point still applies—about the dangers of violent partisanship in some party in the church.  People in churches have always had strong opinions,  and those opinions have always differed.  And we should have no less desire today to become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.

Church, of course, is so important to us.  We CARE so much that it is easy to fall into violent partisanship.  When I first became a Christian as an adult, I have laughed at myself since because, honestly, my idea of evangelism was as if I would trip someone, get them flat on their back, and hold my knee on their chest till they agreed with me.  It is NOT very effective evangelism!  But what I had found was so important to me that I feared departing from any particular of my own conversion.  Yet, God made us with our differences, and different paths will always be part of people finding their way into relationship with God.

A fellow priest in my diocese recently sent me an email about a group in our church who recognized how important it was not to take these positions of violent partisanship, rejecting having anything to do with those who disagree with us.  It was so moving to me that I would like to close by sharing parts of it with you.  He wrote me that women always seemed to get it more right than men; and while I would love for that to be true, I think he’s being graceful.  At least, however, I believe this group of women were “getting it right.”

The Episcopal News Service reported that a group of Anglican women, as an expression of their faithfulness to the church's mission, issued a statement March 3 reiterating their unequivocal commitment "to remaining always in 'communion' with and for one another," and emphasizing that "rebuilding and reconciling the world" is central to their faith.

The statement came as more than 80 Anglican women from all over the world were meeting in New York for the 51st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW).  The Anglican delegation is the largest non-governmental representation at the UNCSW, an annual meeting that brings thousands of women from around the world to New York, in part to address the challenges raised by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially Goal 3 which calls for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. The statement was then publicly presented by delegate Jenny Te Paa in Boksburg, South Africa, focused on the church's contribution to these goals.  She is the ahorangi or dean of Te Rau Kahikatea (College of St. John the Evangelist) in Auckland, New Zealand.  Here is her statement: 

"Over the past two years since Windsor the women of the Communion have I believe moved from bewilderment to outrage at the ways in which a small cabal of leaders have continued to insist that the issues exercising them alone over human sexuality are inevitably to preoccupy us as well," said Te Paa, who was a member of the Lambeth Commission on Communion, which produced the Windsor Report. "What these leaders have failed to realize is that the priority focus for Anglican women always has been the pressing issues of life and death which are daily facing too many of the women and children of God's world –how can we compare the needless horrific suffering of women and girls being brutally raped when collecting firewood or water with the endless hysteria of male leaders wanting to debate whether gay men have full humanity or not? How can we compare the daily horror of living with war, with death, with utter human futility with the missiological preferences of those who want to argue a fine line argument about whose method of biblical interpretation is best? Now I know the comparisons may be seen as very unfair but for global Anglican women the unrelenting determinations of any church leader to distract us from our primary mission agenda to heal God's world is what is also being seen not only as unfair but theologically reprehensible."

The statement, Te Paa said, "is intended as a clear, confident, Gospel-based, deeply pastoral reminder of how we see our ministry as being first and foremost among those who are the least among us. It was a statement which emerged with ease among the women gathered at the UN – it was a statement which emerged with profound urgency for the work needing to be done and with deep love and respect for the Church to which we each proudly belong –a Church which in spite of its occasional faltering still enables us to be prophetic witnesses to Christ's love and compassion in and for the world."

Nomfundo Walaza, an Anglican delegate from South Africa, said in an email to the Anglican Communion's secretary general, speaking of the same statement, said:

"This statement comes following a 'sacred space listening process' that we invited delegates to participate in.  Women were given an opportunity to share their concerns about the consequences of the current tensions within the Communion and the effect that these have on their work and ministries."

Walaza said that the statement was "passionately received" by all Anglican delegates during a working session on March 3 and that more than 80 women signed it.  Walaza asked that the statement be relayed to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams with a request that it be sent to the Communion's 38 Anglican Primates –the Communion's presiding bishops, archbishops and moderators.  The effort to bring the women from all 38 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion is that of the Office of the Anglican Observer at the United Nations and Anglican Women's Empowerment (AWE) –an international grassroots movement founded in 2003 to use the power of women's voices and presence to pursue a humane agenda for women worldwide. 

A part of the statement follows: 

”In the name of God, Saviour, Redeemer, and Giver of Life.  We, the women of the Anglican Communion gathered in New York as the Anglican Consultative Council delegation to the 51st Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, and as members of the International Anglican Women's Network representing the diversity of women from across the world-wide Anglican Communion, wish to reiterate our previously stated unequivocal commitment to remaining always in "communion" with and for one another. 

We remain resolute in our solidarity with one another and in our commitment, above all else, to pursue and fulfill God's mission in all we say and do.  Given the global tensions so evident in our church today, we do not accept that there is any one issue of difference or contention which can, or indeed would, ever cause us to break the unity as represented by our common baptism. Neither would we ever consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationships as Anglican women.

We have been challenged in our time together by the desperately urgent issues of life and death faced by countless numbers of women and children in our communities. As a diverse delegation, we prayerfully reflected on these needs.  This sisterhood of suffering is at the heart of our theology and our commitment to transforming the whole world through peace with justice.  Rebuilding and reconciling the world is central to our faith.  Amen.”  [End of statement]

I have quoted this material at great length because it touched me so, and I hoped it might touch you as well—so that we too may come to proclaim, of all those who claim Jesus as savior, that nothing, no difference of opinion no matter how strongly held, would ever cause us to break the unity represented by our common baptism, nor would we, too, ever consider severing the deep and abiding bonds of affection which characterize our relationship.  I think our bishops in their recent meeting in New Orleans responded with a similar stance, and this statement has now been accepted by the leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Their statements reminded me of a video on the Anglican Communion which quoted Archbishop Tutu of South Africa as saying, “The Anglican Communion is very, very messy, but very lovable.”  If we can cling to this lovableness, it seems to me that there is an honest hope that we can thus again focus on that mission to which we are all called by out baptismal covenant [those promises on pages 304 and 305 which we agree to every time we attend a baptism] —to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to resist evil and repent when we fall into sin; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ by word and example; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

Thus, I believe, will God’s grace always precede and follow us that we may continue in God’s good works and his love for all his creatures.  God help us all.  Amen