Sermon from Vesper Service, January 28, 2015
My friends, I cannot begin to tell you how pleased I am to be here this evening with you as I take possession of this cathedral. I welcome the governmental and civic leaders who are here and thank them for their gracious presence. Please know of my continuing prayers for you and all our civic leaders as you seek to governor in the state of Vermont. I’ve been told that Vermonters can be somewhat free-spirited and free-thinking. I’m not sure if that’s true … oh it is? Well good luck then.
I am especially glad to have joined in prayer with my brothers and sisters within the ecumenical and inter-faith community. Iam aware that this cathedral is only one of many places of worship within this city, places where prayer and worship are lifted up to God, places where charity is encouraged and enacted, places where the human person reaches for that encounter with the Divine. Along with the representatives of the Christian churches and communities I join this week in a time of pray for unity among Christians, praying in the words of Jesus Himself “that all may be one.” While there are many things that divide, there are also many things that unite us, most especially our love for the Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior. To my colleagues in the inter-faith community, the shared belief we have in the Divine One and the common mission of care for the poor, sick, and needy in our midst unites us in charity and honors the One that we serve. I pledge myself to work with all of you on those things about which we agree and politely speak the Catholic Church’s faith to those matters about which we disagree.
I am not a politician. I am a pastor. I am not a policy-maker. I am a preacher and teacher of the Catholic Faith. My desire is to teach what the Church teaches, to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, and inform the consciences of my fellow Catholics of what we believe and why we believe. While I always seek to foster the common good of all, I recognize that I do so as one within a diverse and multi-faceted culture of which the Catholic Church is only one part among many.
It seems to me that the reading that we just heard from the Letter of James is quite appropriate for this task. It was not a reading I chose but one that is prescribed for the Feast of Saint Thomas Aguinas, which we Catholics celebrate today. My hope is to be “wise” in the manner of which James writes: peaceable, rich in sympathy and the kindly deeds that are the fruits of wisdom. I can’t make any guarantee about being docile though. Just not in my nature.
I’m a student of history, having received my doctorate in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. The P.I.L, as is called, is famous for its use of the historical-critical method for the study of liturgy. One necessarily had to become versed in Church history in order to understand the development and meaning of the Church’s liturgical practices. One thing I’ve learned is that in the encounter between human beings there often is not that much new under the sun. What I mean is when looking for wisdom on how to work together or get along or any number of interpersonal endeavors, the best place is often to look to the wisdom of the past. So in considering what I might offer for our consideration tonight, It run to a writing that is close to our our New England heritage. It was the sermon that was preached by the Puritan lay leader John Winthrop in 1630 as the Puritans were preparing to land in what is now Massachusetts. It is entitled “A Model of Christian Unity.” I know, I know. This text has often been used, on the one hand, by politicians to support the idea of “American exceptionalism” – that we are a “city on a hill” for all to follow in the great experiment that is America – and on the other hand that Winthrop’s intention in the new world was to establish a Puritan theocracy his call, but I think we can set those concerns aside because Winthrop’s preaching on unity in love or mutual charity is one that bears our consideration today.
Winthrop preached that the bond of charity among Christians was a necessary part of their community, “as the sinews and other ligaments of a natural body are to the being of that body” and that it was “a divine, spiritual nature free, active, strong, courageous and permanent. Winthrop believed that having this “bond of love” for one another would unite a group of people that would be blessed by God and impact the world (as they knew it) in a positive manner. Despite the diversity of people, living in mutual charity could unite people of completely different socioeconomic backgrounds to work together and better the world. I would offer that we can move beyond Winthrop’s particularly Christian leitmotif into the broader context of inter-faith, even non-religious relationships and see his call for unity in mutual charity as the framework on which you and I engage in our cooperative endeavors.
It flows from the golden rule, I think: to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, but it also flows beyond a kind of mutual exchange of personal value – “you do for me, I do for you” – to one of charity, meaning seeking the “good’ for the other person. In this way, I operate from an understanding of community where this is my neighbor who seeks what is good for me as I seek what is good for him or her. It engages us in the broader question of what is best for the common good. The golden rule urges me to feed the hungry person because that is what I would want it I was hungry. The greater act routed in communal charity and aimed at the common good urges us to look at the roots of poverty out of a love for them.
Finally, allow me to end my reflections this evening by referring to the last line of the reading from James: “The harvest of justice is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” It is often difficult for us to agree about how we are to pray together. Different canons, creeds, and confessions can complicate things very quickly. When we try and worship as one, we end up with a compromise that leaves no one happy. But, I think there is one thing about which we can agree as to what we are to pray about and that is “peace:” for an end to violence, hatred, and war. We do not have to pray about how this is to happen just that it does happen. No one who claims to be a believer or a person of goodwill wants to see anyone die because of war, prejudice, or hatred. If we do nothing else in our common gathering than to pray for peace and pray that we may each be peacemakers in our own way within our own faiths and our own beliefs, then we are doing something of the good, of the divine, of God.