Sermon — September 27, 2015 (18th Sunday after Pentecost) — The Rev. Amy McCreath

In the suburb of Dayton, Ohio where I grew up, there were the families who attended Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church and then there were the rest of us. The Holy Angels folks attended mass. We attended morning prayer most Sundays, with the occasional communion added in. Holy Angels was led by Father Goetze. Our churches were led by Mr. Paget and Pastor Willauer. The Holy Angels kids ate fish on Fridays and got out of school on Good Friday. We ate whatever we wanted any time and weren’t really clear what Good Friday was about. The Holy Angels kids went to CCD and confession and they crossed themselves. We went to Sunday School, learned a version of the Lord’s Prayer that was mysteriously longer than the one the Catholics said, and were told that crossing yourself “wasn’t what our people did.”

Having grown up with such clear markers between religious traditions, imagine my surprise when my Episcopal college chaplain told us one evening that as Episcopalians, we were both Protestant and Catholic. “Did he really just say that?” I whispered to my friend Nancy. “Yes,” he went on. “We are Protestant in that the Episcopal Church does not centralize authority in a magisterium, that is, a pope and group of cardinals and bishops. Rather, while we have bishops (elected), authority is broadly shared and decisions are made as the Spirit works through all the people. As Protestants, we emphasize that salvation is by God’s grace. But we are Catholic in that we retained at the Reformation a commitment to orders of ministry, including bishops, and our worship is rooted in a deep sacramentality. Besides, he added, the word catholic means universal, as in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” And we are definitely part of that “small c” catholic church.
Later I found myself at an Episcopal seminary in Chicago where most people did cross themselves, and where we celebrated communion every day – some people even called it mass – and where I was taught to swing a thurible full of smoking incense as I circled the altar as a prayer of honor and thankfulness at the beginning of the Eucharist. I was told that this was all part of our spirituality as Anglo-catholics.

Anglo-catholics?! Now I was thoroughly confused! But I was spiritually alive as I soaked in the beauty and paradox and fullness of the span of all these ways of being an Episcopalian. Although I was clear theologically that I was not called to be a Roman Catholic, I began to question the assumption that God was with one side and not the other, or indeed that there were “sides” at all.

In today’s gospel we hear, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” This is not the first time one religious group has assumed the others were frauds or scoundrels.

Starting with the Israelites complaining to Moses about the good food they left behind in Egypt in order to find freedom from slavery, people have questioned whether God is at work in religious leadership. Ever Since Moses appointed 70 elders to help him attend to the complaining Israelites in the desert, there have been disagreements about structure and authority in religious community. And ever since those 70 elders anointed by Moses accused Eldad and Medad of stealing their thunder, there has been suspicion and jealousy between traditions. Even after Moses given some of his spirit to 70 elders and those had been joined by Eldad and Medad, you can bet the complaining in the wilderness continued and the rivalry between various elders began.

There will always be what Greg Jones of Duke Divinity School calls the “Back to Egypt Committee.” Liberation and new life are on the horizon, but “we don’t trust this new guy” or “we think that leader isn’t authorized to distribute that manna, so we’re not budging.” The Back to Egypt Committee doesn’t want us to work with the church down the road or share resources with the Episcopal parish up the hill because “we’re just so different from them.”

Fortunately, the grip of this way of thinking seems to be loosening. A grace of this era is that young adults, while often wanting to root themselves in one tradition, find beauty and gift in a range of traditions. As you may know, young adults of all faiths and no faith all over the world have photos of Pope Francis taped to their walls or as their screensavers on their computers. These younger adults might be “nones” when asked about their religions, but they are hungry for integrity, compassion, and authentic spiritual joy. They may not agree with the Pope’s theology, but more important to them is his spirit. They sense that he is the real deal.

One of the brilliant things about Pope Francis’s visit to the United States this week was that he rarely mentioned he was Roman Catholic. He didn’t quote encyclicals or evangelize. He didn’t preface his remarks with insider baseball commentary on inter-church issues or spend time namedropping and thanking officials. He just dove in to his message and assumed that all of us were chasing after God right alongside him: mayors and prisoners, nuns and college students, congressmen and refugees, Protestants, Buddhists, and Catholic cardinals.

He spoke of basic truths core to our shared humanity. He called on us to be Christ-like without prefacing his remarks with exclusionary dogma about what we must believe to hear him. He showed what it looks like to follow Christ through his actions, like visiting a prison and eating with those who are on the margins.

And here’s the thing: we can do that too. You don’t have to be the pope to visit a prison. You don’t have to be the pope to choose simplicity. Pope Francis ued his authority to show us a ministry we all share. That’s great leadership.

While in Philadelphia, Pope Francis recounted the story of St. Katherine Drexel, who as a young Philadelphia heiress appealed to Pope Leo XIII in 1891 to send missionaries for America’s underserved populations. Pope Leo responded, “And you? What are you doing?”

The encounter inspired Drexel to become a religious sister, found a religious order and pour her fortune into Catholic work among African-Americans and Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And you? What are you doing, Congress? And you? What are you doing, United Nations? And you, what are you doing, people of Watertown?

Last Thursday, twelve clergy persons who serve churches in Watertown gathered right here in this sanctuary for lunch and shared their joys and concerns. If you had been present you would have seen that we were dressed in a wide variety of ways, indicating a wide variety of understandings of authority and role as ordained persons. If we had been asked to talk about our ecclesiology or our understanding of how Christ saves us, we would have ended up in at least debates if not arguments. But instead, we united around the urgent needs of the world. We are all distraught about the refugee crisis. We are all determined to preach about the opioid crisis in Watertown during the week-long campaign to “end the stigma” of addiction in this community. Although none of the clergy who attended the lunch are Roman Catholic, we were all inspired by the Pope’s visit.

I know people in this congregation have a variety of histories with the Roman Catholic and lots of other religious traditions. I hope that regardless of our individual stories, we can unite around Christ’s invitation to work with whomever goes out in his name to address the urgent needs of God’s people and this planet, which Pope Francis lifted up to Congress and the United Nations as having a right to exist.
Don’t let the Back to Egypt Committee — in our hearts or in our communities — keep us from doing the work of God, which is urgently needed. Let us go forward, in Christ’s name, to the land of freedom and justice.

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