Finding Our Way in Turbulent Times
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, February 5, 2017
We are living in turbulent times where it is becoming increasingly hard to find common ground. So, I would like to tell you a story that has relevance for us today. When Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the English throne in 1558 at the age of 25, one historian noted that “the country was in a most unhappy state.” Perhaps this sounds familiar.
Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary, who became known as “Bloody Mary” because of her brutal suppression of Protestants. Mary’s tenure was outwardly successful, but proved to be a disaster as she abolished the advances made by her father Henry and her brother Edward as she restored the Church to its medieval state.
Tyranny and brutality at home were matched by an unsuccessful foreign policy abroad. The public was furious. All eyes were upon Elizabeth as she led the government. The question on everyone’s lips was, “What would be her policy?” Would she follow the Pope or set England free from subservience to Rome? The nation pondered this question, as much was at stake.
The country was divided into three clear groups. There were those who enthusiastically supported Mary and wanted to follow the Pope. Then there were those who had fled overseas to avoid religious persecution and others who had laid low and been silent during Mary’s brutal reign. They watched for signs of political change.
In between these two polarized parties was a third group, who occupied the middle ground. They longed for a Church of England that was catholic (with a small “c” meaning universal) but free from the abuses of the medieval Roman Church.
A turning point occurred when the first Book of Common Prayer was issued in 1549, and priests were instructed to administer Communion using Roman Catholic words, “The Body of Christ, which was given for you.” The Protestants hated this. So, the Prayer Book was revised in 1552 and priests now administered Communion using Protestant words – “Take this in remembrance that Christ died for you and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.” These words implied that the Eucharist was merely a symbol of Christ’s dying for our sins, but not the real Body and Blood of Jesus. Catholics vehemently disagreed.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, England was on the verge of a religious civil war. Could Protestants and Catholics possibly unite? Many were dubious, but Elizabeth ingeniously issued a new Prayer Book in 1662 which called priests to use both Roman Catholic and Protestant words side by side as they administered Communion. “The Body of Christ which is given for you. Take this in remembrance that Christ died for you.” This unified the Church with words that we still use 350 years later in the Rite I service of the Eucharist.
In doing this, Elizabeth forged a middle way, which has defined Anglicans and Episcopalians ever since. We are a bridge church – a middle way – that unites Roman Catholics on one side and Protestants on the other side. I would argue that this is what the world needs today – unity, common ground and bridges, rather than walls that divide us.
We are living in turbulent times. Our world is becoming increasingly polarized. Many ask, “What would Jesus do?” Jesus was a revolutionary figure, and when it comes to leading governments, administering justice, practicing medicine or managing wealth, we must do more than merely ask, “What would Jesus do?” Different groups interpret Jesus in widely diverging ways. So, in addition to asking what Jesus would do, we must seek the middle way between polarized extremes.
The Episcopal Church does this with vital ethical issues like abortion, whereby we state that “all life is sacred,” “but in some rare cases [paraphrasing for cases such as incest and rape] an abortion may be an ethically permissible act.” Episcopalians combine Pro Life and Pro Choice views in one statement to forge a middle way and unite us.
Episcopalians helped to draft our nation’s governance, which provides checks and balances so that no person or party can rule by fiat. When I was ordained in 1989, the Congress and Senate had more Episcopalians than any other religious group and the Episcopal Church had produced the greatest number of presidents. These Episcopal leaders were spiritually formed to unite people in the center – not on the far right or far left, but in the center. It is the best way to rule the nation, the Church and our lives. Today, we must help our nation reclaim the middle way.
Back then, they battled hard on the floors of Congress, but they drank and ate dinner with members of the opposing party. They listened and learned from each other and built longstanding friendships on mutual trust. Sadly, this rare in today’s divisive political climate. Few leaders cross the aisle, think independently or attempt to see the good in the other party. We have merely to look at deeply troubled countries like Syria, Iran, Russia, Venezuela, Turkey and North Korea to see what can happen when one person or one party says, I or we “have all the answers.” Checks and balances are essential.
We live in an increasingly complex and dangerous world. Making news has become a major 24/7 industry. Many are addicted to receiving news alerts from their preferred sources, reinforcing strong prejudices or viewpoints, while filtering out or condemning opposing viewpoints. This divides our nation and our world. The media know that fear sells well.
Jesus knows that fear can cripple us, but love can cast out fear. That is why the second most common phrase in the Bible is “fear not,” and the most common phrase is God saying, “I am with you.” We are never more loving than when we are least afraid and willing to trust each other.
Jesus tells us today, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” In using this expression, Jesus gives us one of the greatest compliments that we can offer a person. To call someone the salt of the earth suggests that he or she is solid, humble, grounded, compassionate, honest and trustworthy.
In the ancient world salt was highly valued. Roman soldiers were often paid in salt, which is where we get the word “salary.” When Jesus spoke of salt, three things would have come to mind – purity, preservation and flavor. Purity. The Romans said salt was the purest of all things. It came from the sun and the sea. We are witnessing a global moral collapse of honesty, trust and compassion. The Christian must be the person who holds aloft these vital values. We must be the salt of the earth.
Second, salt was a preservative in a day without refrigeration. Salt keeps meat from rotting and going bad. It preserves from corruption. Each Christian must help to stamp out corruption and live in such a way as to make it easier for others to do good, and refrain from saying or doing anything racist, hateful, rude, degrading or lacking in compassion.
Third, salt adds flavor to things. Without salt food tastes bland. When salt is applied properly, we are not meant to taste the salt, but the food will taste more authentically as it should. William Barclay notes that Christianity is to life what salt is to food. Christianity makes life come alive with hope, love and trust. Christianity should never dampen life, but rather enrich, purify and enliven it, bringing out life’s deepest qualities, meaning and joy. Such enriching persons are the salt of the earth. Are we Americans striving to be salt of the earth or are we cowering in fear?
What made our country great was not our wealth or our power or securing our borders, but our values – things like liberty, freedom, equality, diversity, integrity, hard work, civil discourse, generosity and the opportunity for everyone to succeed. In these turbulent times, we must cling to these values which made our country great. Fear is not one of them, but justice, stewardship of God’s creation and respect for the dignity of every human being are.
Some speak as though truth no longer matters. Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Truth is everything. Without truth, there can be no trust, and without trust, there can be no future. In this age where politicians and the media divide and instill fear, we Christians must focus and embody the Good News of Jesus Christ and not fall prey to news that fans the flame of hate and fear. We must also seek common ground and support leaders who unite us, who refuse to bully or bludgeon, but see the good in everyone regardless of race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation.
Last week, our nation closed its borders to people from seven countries, but ironically, not to countries which produced most of the 9/11 attackers. We have heard heart-wrenching stories of people fleeing abusive governments, death, oppression and starvation being barred from our borders. Each nation must exercise its sovereignty and protect its people, but Christians are called to care for refugees and the homeless, poor and oppressed. We cannot call ourselves Christian and refuse to help refugees.
Abraham was a refugee who traveled through strange lands and feared for his life. Moses was a refugee, who was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. Jesus was a refugee, whose parents fled to Egypt to avoid having their son killed by the tyrannical Herod. What if Egypt had closed its borders? What if the Egyptians said, “We are more concerned for our own security than for the welfare of others?” There would be no Christians to serve as salt of the earth.
My ancestor Albrecht Zaborowski was a refugee, who fled from Poland to Holland during the Reformation. There he set sail on a ship called the Fox in 1650 and found a home in this great country, which thankfully welcomed refugees.
So, I urge you to stand up for the oppressed. Since 2001, four times more Americans have died from being struck by lightning than were killed by terrorists in our country. The prophet Isaiah reminds us “to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our homes.” Every Christian has a Jewish heritage, and God commanded the Jews always to care for the stranger, to provide shelter, food and security. Let love, not fear, guide us, but let us seek common ground and reclaim the middle way between extremes in this turbulent time. Amen.