Bridging the Divide

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, OCTOBER 28th, 2018

Two days ago, in Washington National Cathedral the ashes of a young, gay man, Matthew Shepard, were interred alongside those of Presidents and other national figures. Matthew Shepard had been murdered in Laramie, WY in 1998 in a shocking crime fueled, for the most part, by the burning homophobia of his killers. They were blind to anything, it seems, other than the hate and anger which drove them.

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As Matthew Shepard was being interred, the FBI were in the process of arresting a man in Florida who had destroyed his life with a toxic hatred for immigrants and anyone who did not share his extremist worldview and had tried to destroy a bunch of other lives, too, by sending bombs through the mail to this very neighborhood.

And then, in Pittsburgh, yesterday, a man so consumed by hatred of an entire race of people that he was prepared to go into a synagogue during what should have been a time of joyous celebration for the bringing of a baby boy into that congregation’s family of faith and instead had their lives ripped apart for ever as that terrorist shot eleven people dead.

 Our Cub Scout pack with Rabbi Josh Strom on a visit to Congregation B’Nai Yisrael in 2016

Our Cub Scout pack with Rabbi Josh Strom on a visit to Congregation B’Nai Yisrael in 2016

This hatred is on our own doorsteps. Our friends in this little town of ours, who gather as members of Congregation B’Nai Yisrael, and who we share so much with as fellow communities of faith, are fearful of what these dark days will bring. You may not know this, but they have had to employ a security guard at the temple, and their campus is at this time constantly being patrolled by our police department. I wrote to my brother leader, Rabbi Josh Strom, yesterday to send the love and prayers of our own community of St. Stephen’s. When one part of our community is hurting, all parts of our community hurt.

As I was saying last week in my sermon, the most important thing that any of us can do in this life is to work as hard as we possibly can to see the face of God in our fellow human beings.

Right now, our society is fracturing again – as it has done so many times before. It is fracturing right before our very eyes again. And when there is a fracture, it produces divides, and it divides people into tribal groups who become blind to the humanity of anyone and everyone who is different from them and in some instances have been so utterly blind to the humanity of those who live lives in slightly different ways from them that they consider that those people shouldn’t be allowed to live at all.

When society fractures, and the ground we are standing on starts to open up a fault line, like in an earthquake, we tend to rush to one of the two sides of the fault line, and there we entrench ourselves. We see this all around us right now in politics: a gaping chasm is opening up between left and right, and each side seems to be becoming more and more entrenched, as they shout obscenities to each other across that divide.

In our rush to one side or the other, we forget that there is a third place that we can be: and it is actually the place where we are all called to be: the place where God actually calls us to be. It is a much less comfortable place than on one side, or the other side. In fact, it is a deeply uncomfortable place. Neither one side, nor the other, we are called to be the bridges across the divide. God calls us to lie down across the chasm in order to bridge the two sides to begin to meet together in the middle again.

***

I often ask Kelly how Sunday School went, and last week she told me that they had been talking about the gospel reading of the day and how it had talked about how the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. She told me that one of her little flock had responded to that by saying that, in that case, he wanted to be in the middle.

Aside from the fact that his quick-wittedness amused me, I remarked to Kelly that being in the middle is actually the hardest place to be, since you have to keep checking in front of you to make sure you are keeping up, but you have to keep checking behind you in case those behind you AREN’T keeping up. Being in the middle is indeed the most demanding place to be.

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The Episcopal Church is in what is called the Anglican tradition. It is a tradition which is often called ‘The Middle Way’. It is sometimes referred to by the Latin phrase, the ‘Via Media’. It is a tradition that literally charts the middle path, and does not seek the comfort of the right or of the left but, instead, seeks the discomfort of the middle, weighing up the best of everything and seeking a balanced, reasoned viewpoint. It is a position which is right out in the open and vulnerable to attack. Some people mock it as sitting on the fence and not coming down on one side or the other. But only if you are in the middle can you see the faces of those on both sides. If you are stuck on one side you are so far away that you can’t see the faces of those on the other side and you can easily ignore the fact that they, too, are human beings who respond to kindness and compassion.

So, yes, the middle is the hardest place to be, but it’s where we are called to be. Bridges of hope between the divides in this fractured world of ours – ready and willing to be walked all over but bringing people back together.

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I had actually planned to preach a very different sermon today. I was going to preach about stewardship, since we are in pledging season again, and next Sunday is our pledging Sunday – what we call here at St. Stephen’s, ‘Celebration Sunday’. Instead, when I sat down to write my sermon yesterday afternoon, it turned out different from what I was expecting. But sometimes God leads us somewhere new. Yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had, in fact, preached the sermon I had intended. I had preached about stewardship and pledging. Because I believe that now, more than ever, our world needs the love of God to be proclaimed from the housetops, and that our world needs the message that we all are made in God’s very image and so very, very precious to him, and it needs to know that there is hope of reconciliation in this world and that, here in Armonk, we continue to invest in places like St. Stephen’s. It is your pledges that have helped St. Stephen’s to stand as a beacon of light and love for 176 years, offering a place of bridge-building, kindness and compassion. Let us give thanks that St. Stephen’s is here to nourish and refresh and comfort our own spirits and souls so that we can continue to live our lives the way God truly wants us to be.

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