Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Law and Grace. Grace and Law." - A sermon for Pentecost Sunday.

Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral at 10 am on Sunday, June 8, 2014

And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.…All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"
Law and grace. Grace and law.

Our life together in the Spirit of Christ is the place where these two things meet

…and do battle.

…and kiss

…and collide

Law and grace. Grace and law.

From the church’s birth it has been this way. And so it remains today.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is Christianity’s holiest site. It is built over the spots where since the second century, tradition has held that Jesus was crucified and died, his body anointed and buried, and from where he rose again.

For nearly two thousand years, millions of pilgrims have visited the Church. It has been torn down and burned, only to be rebuilt and torn down and burned and rebuilt again. During the Crusades, it was a place thousands killed and died for.

Even in recent centuries, which Christian group controls this holy site has been a matter of intense conflict. For most of the past 200 years, three primary groups have shared custody of the Church – the Orthodox, represented by the Greeks, the Armenian Apostolics and the Roman Catholics, represented by Franciscan monks.

This shared custody is governed by a law … an intricate set of rules called the status quo that regulates everything that happens in the common areas including the chapels of Jesus’ tomb. The status quo is so exacting, you can’t move a candlestick a millimeter without getting consent from all the communities.

The diverse custodians of the church take this law incredibly seriously. Ten years ago, when the Orthodox were having one of their liturgies, the door to the Franciscan Chapel was left open when it was supposed to be closed. The Orthodox took this as a sign of disrespect, and a fistfight broke out. For leaving a door open.

That’s how tightly controlled life inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is. It is a place of law. And my first reaction to it was sadness. Sadness that these groups of deeply faithful people, each dedicating their life to Christ -- albeit in radically different ways -- can’t just get along.

And yet, there’s a flip side to it. And that is despite the occasional flareup, the law of the status quo has allowed these diverse followers of Jesus peacefully to share custody of this holiest and most contentious of spaces for nearly 200 years.

We long for a day when we don’t need law. We long for a day when we live together in such pure mutual love, loving one another as Christ loved us, that law becomes unnecessary. But until that day, law has its purpose. Until that day, law provides the scaffolding for love.

And here’s the thing. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not just a place of law. It’s also a place of grace.

A week ago last Tuesday night, three of my fellow pilgrims and I entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at 9 pm and watched from the inside as the door was closed and locked behind us, sealing us and 8 others in until 5 the next morning.

As the sound of the door closing echoed throughout this now-empty space, a Franciscan monk gathered us around and said quietly:

There are three rules: No singing. No sleeping. No candles.

Then he lifted his head and said with a gentle smile:

“The church is yours.”

Think about that. In one of the most tightly controlled spaces in Christendom, where leaving a door open can trigger a fistfight, 15 total strangers were invited in and told words that the factions of the status quo could never say to one another:

“The church is yours.”

There was no vetting procedure to spend the night there. We didn’t even get Googled. How could they? They never even asked our names! We just showed up early that morning at the Franciscan sacristy and said, “we are four pilgrims from America, and we would like to spend the night in the Church.” And the brother looked at us and said, “OK. Come back before 9 tonight. I’ll remember you.”

I had a backpack on when I walked into that church. It had some water and a sweatshirt and various devotional items, but for all anyone knew it could have had explosives or cans of spray paint or even a fifth of scotch for a late night bender at the foot of the cross. They never checked. They never even asked.

In this place governed for centuries by intricate and severe laws that you break at the peril of international ecclesiastical incidents, we were the beneficiaries of deep and radical grace. And because of all of it … the law of the status quo and the grace of the invitation … that night, those of us who were there had an experience of Christ that at least in my life is unparalleled in its depth and power.

No singing. No sleeping. No candles.

The church is yours.

Law and grace. Grace and law.

As a Cathedral whose mission includes the charge “Embrace diversity joyfully,” we love the story of Pentecost. We love the diversity of people each hearing the Gospel in their own language. We love the Acts story because even though it is a story of cacophony … like when we read it in different languages this morning … the cacophony is short-lived, and having dipped our toes in its chaos, we quickly go back to just hearing our own language, comfortable in its familiarity.

But that’s not the story of Pentecost. Pentecost is not the story of God gathering a diversity of people and either molding them into one homogenous group or sending them off into their separate corners. It is God giving the amazing gift of the Spirit to each in our diversity, leaving that diversity intact. And even more than that, leaving us at close quarters with each other, not just dipping our toes in the chaos but challenged how to live together and share a common pilgrimage deep into the heart of Jesus.

It is an amazing and seemingly impossible task. And is there any wonder that faced with this, the reaction of the people was: “What does this mean?”

And we have been trying to answer that question ever since.

What does it mean for us to believe that God binds us together in all our diversity to find a way to live together in that place of holy chaos and cacophony?

What does it mean for us to believe that the gift of God’s Spirit is that none of us – rich or poor, black or white, young or old, gay or straight, insert your categories here – that none of us in our particularity has a corner on the market of the presence and wisdom of God but that we each are gifted with a piece not just for ourselves but for one another?

What does it mean and how do we do it? These are questions the church wrestled with from the day when tongues of fire descended to this very day in this very space. And like in that holiest of spaces at the foot of the cross and at the empty tomb, what we have come to realize is that until that day where we live the love of Christ so fully we don’t even have to ask the question, we do it through Law and Grace. Grace and law.

The Pentecost life. Our life together in the Spirit of Christ is the place where these two things meet

…and do battle.

…and kiss

…and collide

Law and grace. Grace and law.

Wherever God invites us into the Pentecost moment of embracing the diversity of God’s people, this is the tension we must hold. And if we are to be Pentecost people, we must lean into it and not shrink away from it.

Yes, law is important. Just like the Orthodox, the Armenians and the Romans we need agreed upon rules to govern and give structure to our common life. We need law as the scaffolding for love.

And yes, grace is important. That voice that invites the unknown stranger into this space so sacred to us and says: “the church is yours.” We need to allow for grace that gives us a glimpse of the love of Christ that will eventually render all our law unnecessary, even though we’re not there yet.

As the cacophony of children sounds out in our worship – beautiful to some and challenging to others – we must ask ourselves what is law and what is grace?

As new generations of Christ-seekers come through these doors, expressing faith in new ways and offering leadership into new lands – we must ask ourselves what is law and what is grace?

As violence in our streets, even a stabbing on our very own street, breeds fear of it spilling into this space. As we are all challenged by the diversity of race and class and hygiene and mental capacity of the people in this Cathedral Nave not only on Sundays but throughout the week –we must ask ourselves what is law and what is grace.

Where do we say, “These are the rules.” And where do we say “the church is yours.” Where do we achieve that balance so that this Church too can be a place where people have an experience of Christ that is unparalleled in its depth and power.

And just as important, who is the “we” who gets to decide? For that question is perhaps the most critical of all, because at its heart is the question of who owns this space? Who is this community really? Are we going to have insiders and outsiders? And if so, who is which?

These are the questions that confront us as the church birthed on this day of cacophony and fire. Where do we negotiate boundaries but where do we also let grace abound? How do we live together as a community that believes that a portion of the Spirit has been given to each but that no one person or group has cornered the market? And who is the “we” who decides?

Pentecost ain’t just holding hands and singing kum ba yah. Embracing diversity is hard, hard work. It leaves us with many more questions than answers and, like the status quo, often leads us into solutions that for now fall short of God’s dreams for us yet are also beautiful in their dedication to continuing the shared struggle. The struggle of law and grace. Grace and Law. Meeting. Battling. Kissing. Colliding.

From the church’s birth it has been this way. And so it remains today. Amen.

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