This last week I made my first visit to a Mormon Church, where I attended a funeral service. Among a wealth of impressions and unanswered questions that played in my mind, the experience left me with two key impressions. I felt humbled by the deep interpersonal quality that pervaded the gathering. I felt I was in the presence of a religious culture which witnessed to God’s presence through the personal connections between people. Everyone around me appeared to feel as if they belonged together. The worshipers seemed to me to be bound together not only by a tangible experience of gratitude to God for his love, but also, by an everyday experience of showing one another the power of that love. I will return to the second off my two key impressions in a moment.
As it happened, later that same day a new member of our congregation came to speak with me. In the course of the conversation he told me about his Mormon upbringing and his early adult years spent in the Church Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. In the course of our conversation he said something that really surprised me. He told me he was finding in the Episcopal Church a deeply felt resonance to the Mormon culture that he could no longer be a part of. He noted that both religious cultures shared an experience of the importance of place. He grew up in a town in Utah where the only church in town was Mormon.
Episcopalians in the U.S. never enjoy the exclusive experience of being the only church in town even thought sometimes we like to behave as if are. Ours is a tradition that was formed in a context the English village and town where for hundreds of years the only Church was the Anglican Church.
The surprise of the last week, for me, has been to realize that Mormon and Anglican Traditions have things in common. Both emphasize the importance of place and the importance of identifying with the local. The locality is the setting for the world of everyday life. This is the setting within which God speaks to us. Here, both Mormon and Anglican Traditions emphasize the centrality of being in right relationship with one another.
My second key impression from the funeral service was reaffirmed in my conversation later in the day. As I sat sensing the deep interpersonal bond that tied the worshipers together I was also profoundly disquieted by the knowledge that the interpersonal bonds were only extended to those who shared the Church’s beliefs. Because Mormon belief is that homosexuality is a sin against God, both the person I went to the funeral to support and the person who spoke with me later that day had experienced rejection from the Church when they reached that point in their lives when their integrity as persons required an open acknowledgement of being Gay. For both of them this became the point where the loving community they had grown up within, and to which they had devoted much of their lives, closed its doors to them and left them on the outside.
Mormonism and Anglicanism both stress the centrality in the Christian life of being in right relationship with one another. However, this is where the similarity ends. Mormonism is among the many examples of religious cultures that are truth based. In a truth based culture it seems that right relationship can only extend to those who share right belief.
As Episcopalians our Anglican Tradition emerges out of an experience where people with very different theologies and political ideologies were compelled by the law to sit alongside one-another in the same pew Sunday by Sunday. Historically we refer to this as the Elizabethan Settlement. Over time, the Elizabethan Settlement broke down, and it eventually became possible for English men and women to express their differences in the choice of the Protestant chapel and eventually the restored Roman Catholic Church. However the mainstream of English culture continued to be dominated by its identification with its National Church, expressed at the local level of the Parish Church.
Over several centuries the necessity of tolerating religious and political differences under the same church roof led to what we today recognize as the distinctly Anglican compromise. This need for compromise and tolerance has prevented us becoming a truth based religious culture. Instead we became a worship based culture.
What makes Episcopalians stand out in the current American religious landscape is our distinctive emphasis on worship as the context in which we find our commonality. Over generations the rich and poor, Tory and Whig, those with High Church sympathies sitting next to their Low Church neighbors were all moulded into a common culture of worship through the linguistic and imaged richness of the Book of Common Prayer. Like Mormons, we too stress right relationship. However, for us right relationship is not predicated by shared truth. Our foundation of right relationship rests on the experience of praying together. We are people committed to praying with any person who wishes to pray with us.
Gathered together in worship we hear God speaking to us through the proclamation of Scripture. This morning’s Gospel is rich in potential preaching themes. As we move Sunday by Sunday through the central chapters of Mark’s Gospel we see a pattern repeating itself. Jesus teaches the disciples about what it means to be his disciples and they, the disciples, then graphically demonstrate in behavior that they have miserably failed to understand. If Jesus’ disciples could get it so wrong and still come through in the end, then there is hope for you and me.
The disciples are pissed-off not only that someone else is healing in Jesus’ name, but healing successfully where they previously had failed. They try to do what groups always try to do – protect their territory by attempting to silence any opposition. Yet, Jesus tells them:
Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.
These words are familiar to us because we usually hear them being misquoted. Instead of Jesus’ actual words whoever is not against us is for us, we invert the phrase to whoever is not for us is against us. This reversal communicates the opposite meaning. Anyone who is not for us is against us expresses a narrow need for exclusive control. It maintains that those who are not on the inside are automatically on the outside. So Jesus tells the disciples, don’t exclude him because he is not one of your band, but include him on the strength of his actions and purpose being the same as yours. Exclusion is replaced by inclusion.
The disciples were operating from the principle that those who are not for us are against us. They intuitively define being for us as being the same as we are. They want to form a self-selecting, truth based group. Self-selecting groups have to keep clarifying who is in and who is out. Whereas, Jesus is inviting anyone into relationship with him on the basis of the way he or she behaves.
The disciples are only seeking to defend themselves against the fearful message of Jesus. If everyone is included, then how will we control the message and keep the truth clear. Perhaps its desperation that forces Jesus into graphic hyperbole? The sin for which drowning by mill stone, severing of limbs and plucking-out of eyes is the atonement is the sin of thinking and acting in ways that put stumbling blocks in anyone’s path to God.
Mark portrays a sequence of events in Chapter 9 in which the central linking theme is following Jesus. We follow Jesus when we welcome and receive others into relationship with us. Sin is our human need to draw sharp distinction between those we consider with us and our consequent desire to exclude those we are not the same as us. It’s a short step from here to defining them as those who are against us. For me this is the sin of falling out of right relationship with another because I am not able to tolerate difference and diversity in community.