Sermon, 1/16/22: Means of Communication

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2 Epiphany

Psalm 36:5 – 10 Isaiah 62:1 – 5 I Corinthians 12:1 – 11 John 2:1 – 11

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  John 2:5

This pandemic which seems not to want to release anytime soon its hold on our lives, has brought many changes into our lives, both large and small, as well as some good and some not so good.  A change which we have scarcely noticed is how we communicate with each other.  Prior to Covid-19 many meetings were being already conducted via teleconference and Skype.  Technology improved, and Zoom and FaceTime have become standard fare.  Missing, but not placed on any missing person or thing bulletin, is the once taken for granted corner telephone booth.  Instead, we have the ubiquitous personal mobile telephone, known by various names.  That is a good thing, as it permits almost instantaneous connections with those around us.  

Often, in matters of telecommunication, I am reminded that I am an outlier, a relic from another era.  Whenever I am asked to give a telephone number, with which a company may connect me, invariably the voice on the other end of the conversation asks “sir, what’s your cell phone number?”  And when I respond that I have none, shock sets in, for long seconds!  On such an occasion, I am reminded of an anecdote told of a Vermont farmer when I taught at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  “The farmer, who, as he was speaking with a visitor and his telephone range, did not answer.  The visitor, becoming uncomfortable with the farmer’s behavior, asked, ‘Aren’t you going to answer?’  To which the famer responded: ‘I put that dang thing in for my convenience, and right now I’m talking with you.  If it’s important, whoever it is, will call back.’” I repeat: it is a good and joyful, and stress-relieving thing to have on ones person a mobile telephone, as the telephone booth that once stood outside every post office or on every corner, has disappeared, never to return.  Different times call for different means of communicating.

When we were in lockdown, not permitted to hold in-person liturgies, I was greatly relieved that we have now the ability to be present virtually during live-streaming, or later, depending on a saved distribution on You Tube, and always in the quiet of my own home.  As a cleric, I missed the edifying relief which liturgy brings.  I could worship at hours convenient to me.  Further, this new and improved technology permitted me to worship in parishes across the Great Pond.  Just this week, I sought on You Tube the service of Choral Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral in the UK.  On the way to Evensong, however, I became distracted by a BBC report regarding Prince John, the last, and some say the lost child of the British King Edward and his wife, Queen Mary,   What piqued my curiosity had little directly to do with the young royal who died unfortunately at the age of 13, but the means with which his parents, the royal couple, communicated their feeling to each other.  Although occupying the same home, they wrote each other letters!

That peculiarity for us moderns, yet well documented, caused me to compare a now seemingly old-fashion means of communication with the ever-handy mobile telephone, which offers the ability to see our conversation partner and to send photographs or live-action videos, even as we speak.  For someone like myself, born in an earlier century, such technology verges on magic, and I sing the praises of those women and men who have advanced this technology.  

That has not always been the case.  When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth, he did not have at his disposal the carrier pigeon, or nor could he imagine the Pony Express of the U.S. frontier.  Paul’s means of communication was the letter; yet, how it got transmitted took not seconds, but surely days, if not weeks.  For that reality, one needs only look on a map at the geographical area which the Apostle Paul covered.  Another reality sinks in as well.  While it is documented that Paul wrote to far-flung emerging Christian communities, it must be equally clear that individuals from those locales wrote to Paul, for however else could he respond with such precision to each location?  What is also obvious, at least to me, is the fact that we do not have access to letters written to Paul, in response to his letters.

However, my focus today is not on the Apostle Paul, per se.  Rather, I am interested in the letter as a means of communication, as exhibited by another apostle, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Given the current temperature in our national arena, I feel it essential that we reacquaint ourselves with that writer of letters, who took on situations, like Paul, in the name of God’s Messiah.  An obvious first similarity is that both men, Paul and Dr. King wrote letters because they could not appear in person, in order to address their opponents or the situation.  We are, consequently, beneficiaries to some of the best thinking and down-to-earth theology one can find anywhere.  

16 April 1963, almost 59 ago, while confined in jail, Dr. King wrote in longhand his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  He was in jail because he had read the letters written by Paul and had subsequently concluded that the church in the United States had divided Christ, into lowercase “c” and uppercase “C.”  Like the church in Corinth, the church in America had adapted itself to the behavior of the country.  Dr. King produced evidence that the churches condoned the practice of first class citizenship for some Christians, and second, even third class citizenship for others.  As sisters and brother in Christ, so dared Dr. King say, this was unacceptable, for God is not divided.  Yahweh does not play favorites.

Had Paul been able to confront in person those who so badly corrupted the gospel of Jesus Christ, and a scribe been present, it is most unlikely that the scribe would have captured so accurately and so eloquently Paul’s discourse, as Paul himself has done with his own hand.  Hear again the voice of Paul, in writing: “I do not want you to be uninformed…I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’  and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.’” (1Cor.1f.)  Paul felt it essential to set the record straight, that in the community of believers in Christ, each individual, outfitted with different talents and gifts, has a role to play, each contributes, and each contribution is essential, is valuable.  Paul wrote to counter mis- and disinformation.

Likewise, had Dr. King been able to meet with those mainline clergy, to whom his letter was addressed and who had accused him of wanting too much, too quickly—after years of forced servitude, physical, spiritual and emotional abuse, even a hundred years following the declaration that freed the slaves—the media would not have captured the poignancy of Dr. King’s message, as the preserved form does.  Each of us can read and sense without external bias, or “talking heads,” in the quiet and privacy of our chambers, the weightiness of Dr. King’s words.  

Admittedly, the Apostle Paul was not Dr. King, and King was not Paul.  Yet, they shared a common goal: And that goal was to bring God’s kingdom closer to realization on earth, as in heaven.  Both of them sought what had been prophesized by Isaiah using a vocabulary that saw the Divine Creator as a builder and a young married man.  Moreover, if one paid close attention to the miracle which Jesus performed at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, his epiphany/appearance as an adult, one could imagine what joyful thing awaited those who put their faith in God.   

In January 2019, the last year prior to the pandemic when it was possible still to assemble on the day set aside nationally to remember Dr. King’s and to further his legacy, I attended a Community Unity Breakfast in the Town of Watertown where, as you know, I reside.  The keynote speaker, up from Atlanta, shared with us the results of a series of conversations which he had had with a group of boys and girls of middle school age.  What, he asked those young girls and boys, would they like adults to do that would make them believers and keep them in church?  According to our speaker, the response was short and sharp: “Stop lying to us!  You tell us one thing, but then do the opposite!”

There was a loud, audible gasp in our crowd, when the speaker said this, for no one in the assembly of ca. 500 people had anticipated such a response.  But that is precisely why both Paul and Dr. King wrote what they did.  We who claim the faith of Jesus, as one hymn reminds us, are the living, walking examples of God’s love for the creation.  And the world outside our communities watch with sharp eyes, as we live out our faith.  Why anyone sitting that Monday morning in the community hall of that beautiful Greek Orthodox Church should have been taken aback by that simple response, I understand not, for out of the mouths of babes comes often truth.

This was the message which I, this week just passed, attempted to convey to a diocesan representative during a conversation, as how we might best attract young people back to our churches.  Lament had been expressed that membership in all mainline churches is in decline, and most lacking were younger faces.  In our own branch of the Anglican Church, itself a branch of the Church universal—in the Episcopal Church of the United States—only five dioceses in the last five years have shown growth.  Not surprisingly, with the exception of one, they are all located outside continental United States.

I raised with my conversation partner the possibility that perhaps we have not really read the letters of Paul or of Dr. King.  Here we are, said I to her, 59 years since “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and we continue to organize focus groups, send out surveys, devise questionnaires—all allegedly designed to address the issue which the two apostles, Paul and Martin found so vexing.   We have become experts in compiling data and composing eloquent sentences to demonstrate on paper our understanding of what the problem is, and if we understand the problem, we conclude our work done.  We have pleased and appeased ourselves, but have we lived the mission of the community of the faithful both within and outside our own communities?  Do we need survey-like lists with little boxes which we can check off as completed and thus convince ourselves, that we have satisfactorily delivered and lived out the message of the Good News?  I thought immediately of what the girls and boys in that Middle School had requested of us: “Stop lying to us!  You tell us one thing, but then do the opposite!”  I wager that the children in Atlanta would have question marks hovering above their heads.  

Two men, separated by untold centuries, but yet united in their love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, give us an example for living out the Good News of Jesus of wine-making fame.  Paul, like Dr. King, had a dream that, if people knew, really knew, what God has in store for them in Jesus Christ, it might just make them grateful enough to live together like saints.  Both apostles, Paul and Martin, understood that Christ divided cannot stand.

In the year 2022, the solution to that vexing problem, which occupied Paul and Martin, is as prominent as the nose of our faces:  “Hear, O Israel.  The Lord our God is one God.  Thou shalt love the Lord our God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.   And the second is like unto it.  That shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.”  (BCP, p. 324)
“His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’”  Today I ask: Have we heard what he, God’s Messiah, has told us to do?