September 14, 2014

Critical Differences


Text: Romans 14:4: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”

know that Saint John’s has a Facebook page, and I even know that I have liked it, which is something of a step for me, because I am rarely on Facebook. But I am glad we have a Facebook page, and all of you should like it, too, because—well, who knows?—it might surprise and confound your friends when they learn about you that you liked the Facebook page of a church.

I would even go so far as to guess that out of all the people here in this room right now, I have been on Facebook the longest. Yes, really. Of course, that doesn’t matter, because Facebook turns out to be a place in which longevity isn’t rewarded nearly so much as popularity. Or the frequency of posting stuff. And on those two scores I’m not doing so well. My social media impact factor is so low it’s not really even detectable.

The plain truth is—I just don’t check my Facebook account that much. I could probably come up with a lot of reasons for doing this that would sound very high minded. But the reality is, Facebook has made me learn stuff about my friends that I’d really rather not know.

Friends, when you are my age—and I’ll just let you speculate about that—you want to have fond memories of high school. You want to think well of all the people you knew back then. And that is a lot easier to do when you can’t quite remember much about them. But every time I am on Facebook I have to learn more and more about who those folks have become.

I’ve learned who became the blue-state liberals and who became the red-state conservatives. I’ve learned who supports gun control and who thinks gun control is a sign of creeping socialism or the reassertion of control from the British crown. I’ve learned who thinks Obamacare didn’t go far enough, and who thinks Obamacare is a sign of the decline of Western civilization.

I don’t really want to know about all this.

This past week I found the courage once again to sign onto Facebook, for perhaps the first time in a couple of weeks, and I found a notification that one of my friends—no one here—had recently joined a group called, and I am not kidding, “True Orthodoxy.” Not just orthodoxy—no, True Orthodoxy, apparently to differentiate it from all those other forms of orthodoxy.

Now, I know I am about to skate out on thin ice here, because there are some here who know a great deal more about the orthodox tradition than I ever will. But this made me so curious that I had to look it up. And, sure enough, there is a web site out there in the world of the intertubes called True Orthodoxy, and its purpose is to help all those who have gotten the Christian faith wrong to let them know they are wrong. The website helpfully divides the variety of ways of getting it wrong into a number of categories: Schismatics, divided between five kinds of Greek schismatics and six kinds of Russian schismatics; heretics; non-Christians; and “others.”

Oh, and the website also goes on to point out that the idea of a world movement of Orthodox Christians would itself be an apostasy. So I guess that’s five categories in all.

I confess that I had to figure out where they placed us. I figured we wouldn’t do better than “other.” Turns out we got placed with the heretics. It’s a crowded room. At least we won’t lack for company.

When I read through this I am struck by the basic quest it expresses. Some of us have a deep need to know the truth, the single, unyielding, unchanging truth. We want to know that there is such a truth; we want to be on the side of that truth; we want to proclaim that truth; we want to draw a clear line between those who know what the truth is and those who either don’t, won’t, or deny it.

Part of what faith is about is a search for the truth. God is truth itself, and so it makes sense that to know the truth is to know God.

Then there is another part of what faith about, equal to and alongside the search for truth. It is the search for tolerance. And it springs from an equally urgent part of our nature. We want to be accepted. We know we make mistakes. And we want to know, when we come to judgment, that account will be made for our frailty, for our foibles, for all the things that made it hard for us to get it right.

The search for truth, and the search for tolerance, get into a lot of trouble. They are each necessary for the religious life. But we tend to find ourselves divided into camps who prefer one or the other.

If you value truth above all other things, it can be hard to be tolerant of those who have received a different truth from the one you were given.

And if you value tolerance above all other things, it can get hard to be clear about the truth you believe.

When Saint Paul wrote his letter to that earliest church in Rome, he was writing to a group of people in the very first years of trying to understand what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. There was a lot of disagreement about just what truth of Christianity was, and a lot more disagreement about what the demands of that truth might be. Did it mean you still had to keep kosher? Did it mean you still had to follow all the Jewish laws? Did it mean you had to refuse to make sacrifices to the gods of the Romans? What did it mean?

Paul has some pretty clear advice to the people who find themselves in this situation. He comes down pretty hard for tolerance—if that is not a self-contained contradiction, and it turns out that it isn’t. Paul says that there isn’t much that will be gained by insisting on your particular version of the faith.

His basic contention is not to say tolerance is more important than truth. It is to say that the whole truth about God is absolutely and without question beyond the grasp of any one of us. That doesn’t make tolerance more important than truth. But it does make tolerance essential in any community that claims to be a community of truth-seekers.

I don’t need to tell you that our world is well-supplied with intolerant truth-seekers. Lots of people fit into this category so obviously that they’re almost cartoon characters. We call them fundamentalists, of one stripe or another. They are, as my old boss used to say, the sort of people who see the world by the light of the rear-view mirror.

Fundamentalists are not restricted to the life of religion. There are plenty of people who are absolutely certain they are in possession of the truth, or at least the only legitimate means to find it. Some of them, not surprisingly, are atheists. Some of them are scientists. A lot of them are politicians.


This is an Episcopal church. For a lot of people that is a label without a lot of content in it. We get dismissed as the church of the wishy-washy brethren, or the weathervane church, or the church of God’s frozen people, or, well, you’ve heard as many of them as I have.

Sometimes those criticisms are right, and they are worth listening to even when they aren’t necessarily offered in charity.

But when we get it right, when we live out the very best of our nature and our history, we live in a search for the holy place between truth and tolerance.

We are a people of the middle. That can seem like a church of mediocrity, or a church of the bland, the average, the neutral.

But being who we really are is very, very hard work. Because to be a church of the middle way means to accept a path that is never easy to find, that has few followers and fewer leaders. It is to accept the idea that you will be criticized from both sides, by folks who find you too churchy and too rigid, and by people who say your idea of the faith is wrong, incomplete, lacking, or heretical. Or just “other.”

We have lots of differences in the business of faith. That is not a sign that only fools have faith. It is a sign of something very wise that faith teaches us: That as much as we have accomplished as a species, we are very, very limited, and we are liable to vastly overestimate our own capacity to find the truth.

We actually have a deep theological investment in this idea, one that is more than three hundred years old. The first great Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, argued that God cares a great deal more about the moral state of each individual human soul than about our knowledge or observance of matters of doctrine.

A whole school of thought arose to develop that idea. And, not surprisingly, they got criticized from both sides. They were seen as people who gave too much latitude for individual belief, and so they were called “latitudinarians,” which today sounds like a kind of organic food, but back then was like calling someone a wimp.

Well, they may not like it, but it’s who we are. We are people of the middle. We do not find in the differences that separate people of belief matters of such critical importance that they are worth dividing communities, losing friends, or going to war.

We are the great, great, great, great grandchildren of people who spent centuries spilling each other’s blood over matters of faith, and finally figured out that it would probably be a lot smarter, and a good deal more Christian, to find ways of managing to pray together, side-by-side.

That is the witness we have to offer the world today, and it is urgently, urgently needed. If you find yourself talking to people who look around the world today and think religion is the problem, bring them here, and let them see what we mean by it. We need to get our message around. Living the middle way isn’t easy; but it’s the only way that offers hope for our torn and tattered world. Amen.