Sunday, July 22, 2018

Our Peace (Proper 11b)

Our Peace
Proper 11B
21 July 2018; 8:00 a.m. Said Mass and 10:00 a.m. Sung Mass
Homily Delivered by the Very Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.,
at Trinity Episcopal Parish

Ashland, Oregon

God, take away our hearts of stone, and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.

Good guys vs. bad guys.  Cops and robbers.  White hats vs. black.  Citizens and aliens.  Jews and gentiles.  Believers and pagans.  It is easy to see the world in Manichean terms, a struggle between light and darkness.  

“Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, … [were] aliens … and strangers to the covenants of promise…. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace… he has broken down the dividing wall, … [Y]ou are no longer strangers and aliens, but citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God….”

Today’s reading in Ephesians thus characterizes the effect of Christ’s victory over death on the cross on his world.  The idea is that by suffering and overcoming the worst that the wickedness of the world could throw at him, Christ wrought peace to people far and near, and broke down the wall dividing groups.  Paul expressed the idea a little more expansively in Galatians:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

The idea is profound—in Christ, all divisions and distinctions are healed, all distinctions blurred, polarities centered, dualities united.
In the Harry Potter books, there is a clear struggle between good and evil, between Voldemort and Harry Potter, the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix, Griffindor and Slitherin:  good guys and bad guys.  Yet at one point, Sirius Black tells his godson that one must not think that one group or person is purely good and another purely evil:  “We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.”

In the Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes his own suffering at the hands of an evil system as a prisoner in Stalin’s labor camp system.  Tortured on a near daily basis, he becomes more and more dehumanized.  But then, in a chapter called ‘Resurrection,’ he regains his Christian faith and begins the long road to true freedom, even in prison. He realized that no matter how tightly his interrogators constrained him, he always had a choice—they always eventually could force him to say what they wanted, but he could do so willingly or unwillingly, cheaply or expensively in terms of suffering.  He saw that his interrogators were under constraint:  if they did not torture, they themselves would become prisoners.  But they could do it with pleasure or regret: they too had a choice in how they did what they were forced to do.  In a system where all were victims in one degree of another, Solzhenitsyn realized this great truth: the line between good and evil is not found between one group of people and another, between country and another country, between one economic class and another, between one political party and another, between one religion or another, or one race and another.  The line between good and evil, he says, is fine but very definite, and runs down the middle of each and every human heart.  It is found in that space of the heart where we exert our choices, no matter how constrained our choices may be.  He asks, with good an evil in each of our hearts, who is willing to kill a part of his own heart? It is easier to deny it, label it in others, and fight against them. 

Solzhenitsyn realized that he needed to pray for his interrogator, and for all of God’s creatures, even Stalin.

It is so easy to divide the world into us and them.  Group identity is a cheap way of finding ourselves, and seeing only the good in us, at the expense of those not in our group.  It is a seductive way of making us forget our own failings by focusing on the failings of others.  Thinking that such divisions matter masks the truth that all of us are flawed, and that ultimately, we are all in this together. 

Think of the following divisions we make in our world: 

Rich and poor. 
Black and white.
Strong and weak.
Saints and sinners.
East and West.
North and South. 
Male and female.
Catholic and Protestant.
Young and old.
Native-born and alien.
Legal and illegal immigrant.
Supervisor and subordinate.
Able-bodied and disabled.
Straight and Gay.
Republican and Democrat.
Conservative and Liberal.
Socialist and Capitalist.
Native and foreigner.
Religious and secular.
Healthy and sick.
Clean and unclean. 

 “Christ is our peace; in him, we are one.” 

Ephesians is not saying that good and evil do not exist, or that we need not worry about struggling against evil.  But it is saying that such divisions no longer matter in light of the cross.

There is a deep logic to this.  Community defines itself not just by who it includes, but also by who in excludes.  For this, Philosopher René Girard says that community is “unanimity minus one,” that is, a group united in accusing and expelling at least one of its own. Community is not just joined hands and linked arms of embrace.  It in its structure is also the pointing finger of accusation, of exclusion. Community regulates itself by scapegoating. 

Anthropologists note that most primitive cultures have myths that express this.  Generally a dissident, abnormal, or impure member of the community is singled out, driven out, and often killed in the myth.  Thereby the community is made whole.  Impurity and wrong are thus purged.  

Girard notes that Christians have their own version of this myth, based on the death of our Lord:  the crowd points their fingers at Jesus and calls for his death, he is brutalized, taken outside the city walls, and killed.  

But the difference is this:  in the Christian telling, Jesus is innocent.  It is he who is right, and the community that is wrong.  The cross embodies the  dark side of community: accusation, the driving outside the city wall, scapegoating.  But Easter morning turns everything on its head.   

Thus Ephesians: Christ on the cross preaches peace to those who are far off and those who are near.  The resurrection condemns accusation itself.  The cross, that cruel tool the Roman Empire used to enforce community, that instrument of public terror supporting conformity as an act of policy, is itself undone by the resurrection of our Lord.

Christ, once driven outside the wall, becomes our peace, and breaks down all dividing walls.  He brings those far off, those driven outside the walls themselves, back, and draws them near.   

That’s what all the shepherd imagery in today’s other readings is about:  where the kings of Israel, called the shepherds of the people, here the bad shepherds, failed them, in large part by striving too hard to maintain their community, their advantage over other nations, Jesus sustains them and brings them all together—regardless of their background—into a single fold.  He tends them not because they are his sheep and others are not, but because, like in today’s Gospel, they need a shepherd.  And so he feeds them and serves them, regardless of their origins.

The cross undoes not just the mutual accusation between groups.  The division within ourselves that each of us experiences, the sense of not being worthy, of not being a “good person,” is also undone. Paul says Jesus “erased the record against us from all legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross”  (Col. 2:24).  He thus destroys the alienation within each of us because of the accusation built into our individual lives.  Anthropologists and critical theorists who work in the area of liminality, the puzzling places where we are at the margins or caught between group identities, value systems, or ritual status, note that being on the margins causes great stress and doubt, often experienced as self-alienation.

What alienates us from ourselves?  What makes us accuse ourselves? 
It usually is difference, the difference between:
What we desire versus what we actually have.
What we ought to do versus what we actually do.
What our community expects of us versus who we are in reality.
How we’d like to be, individually or in community, versus how we actually are.

Even in this, “Christ is our peace; in him we are one.”  The cross and resurrection tell us that we ought not accuse ourselves or others.  They tell us that we are one, that we are beloved. 

Loved ones, alienation is real, whether between groups or within our hearts. We are all strangers and foreigners.  We try to make ourselves feel better about it by clinging to our group, our family, our tribe, defined in part by making strangers and foreigners of others.   We accuse scapegoats or blame enemies; we also accuse ourselves as forlorn, desolate losers.  Those political and religious leaders who milk such alienation to gain power and wealth are guilty of great sin.  For Jesus took this all with him outside the wall, and it died with him.  In the light of Easter morning, we can see that it is all a sham. 

In Christ, we are one.  In Christ, we are no longer strangers and foreigners.  He has broken down the dividing wall, and has nailed the accuser’s power itself to the cross.   He is our peace. 

Thanks be to God.