Monday, June 7, 2021
“A House Divided Cannot Stand” A Sermon on Mark 3:20-35 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC June 6, 2021
Sometimes the Lectionary seems to know just what we need and assigns us those readings. Not always, of course—there are weeks when we tumble into the seemingly endless morass of Psalm 119, or, even worse, the vindictive psalms, or a dry stretch of Leviticus, and the preacher struggles to find a way to relate the experience of ancient times to the way we live now. Today, though, we have a stark warning against submitting to the autocratic rule of a would-be king and a pointed observation by Jesus that the scribes those who accused him casting out demons by Satan’s power misunderstand how power works. If Satan has risen up against himself, then Satan can no longer stand, and his very end has come. On a hot June day just about 165 years ago, Jesus’s observation was reframed by a man most Americans think of as one of the greatest leaders this nation has ever had. A man who many claim as a prophet and as a martyr. On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln stood on a speaker’s platform in Springfield, Illinois and spoke words that, at the time, cost him his chance of election to the United States Senate, but ultimately led him to the Presidency. Four lines into his speech, Lincoln quoted the Gospel, and announced that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and then he added that this meant that a Nation could not be half slave and half free. Lincoln explained that he did not expect the Union to be dissolved – that he did not expect the house to fall -- but that he did expect it would cease to be divided. Simply put, the house would become all one thing or all the other. For Lincoln, that meant that either the opponents of slavery, would arrest its further spread, and place it on the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new--North as well as South. He then described how the political and legal systems could not only easily fail to contain slavery but might instead entrench it even in the free states. The division in the United States, like that in June 1858, is disquieting, even a little frightening. Views are so at odds that the very concept of the factual has been called into question by an increasing segment of the political world and even the best journalists struggle to keep up with the blended truths and lies that are often indistinguishable. Laura Marks, my friend and former landlady, is a writer and a producer of the show The Good Fight. During its 4-year run so far, the program has tried to capture the experience of the era of bad feelings we currently live in. Even the opening sequence emphasizes instability, loss of security, and disruption. As the credits roll, we view a series of objects representing normalcy—briefcases, law books flanked by handsome bookends, furniture, computer screens, and office phones, only to watch each explode in front of us, climaxing in a desk, shattered and splintered. Even the backdrop, the spotlight, and the fragments of the desk fall down among the devastation, and we are left to contemplate the wreckage. That opening sequence leaves us in a landscape in which nothing is stable, nothing is secure. And I think Laura and her colleagues are right: that’s how life in these United States has felt since 2017, and still feels even today. For those of us who hoped that the election and inauguration of a President who ran on a return to normalcy, and hopefully, toward thawing relations between our warring factions, . But as Goya wrote many years ago, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,” and dispelling those monsters is not a simple matter. Relationships once sundered are hard to restore. The concept of truth is even harder. In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the “ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction [that is, the reality of experience] and the distinction between true and false . . .no longer exist.” Michiko Kakutani’s 2018 book The Death of Truth pursues Arendt’s thought, and traces the fraying of the very concept of truth. She warns us that “Without commonly agreed-on facts—not Republican facts and Democratic facts—there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.” And our present day shows that the crumbling of the concepts of truth and objective reality feeds the growing division in our house. No sermon can answer Pilate’s question, What is Truth? on the grand scale, but we can start looking at our own truths, the ones we are reluctant to face, let alone to own. Truth begins with acknowledging that every single one of us is at once a sinner and a saint, both at the same time. That we fail, as well as succeed, in big and little ways. Some of you know that I’m a sober alcoholic, and let me just say that no one decides to go to AA because their lives are going so well. Before I could look the truth in the eye, I caused a lot of hurt, a lot of damage. Only after that could I drag myself down the steps to my first meeting at Trinity Wall Street. So, I can tell you that in the search for our own truth, we don’t get to assume that we are the heroes of the story and that someone else, someone very different from us is responsible for the brokenness we mourn. We have met the enemy, and he is us, and she is us, too. Except that we, or he, or she, isn’t really the enemy—not if we are willing to try to look the truth head on, own that truth, and try to incorporate that truth into our lives. But here’s the thing—our own brokenness, the brokenness of the world, can call us to a more full life. Because once we embrace truth, and bring it into our lives, we can see our own failings, our own share in the state of things we deplore, and stop us from only deploring others. And that can begin the healing from division. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a Leonard Cohen song, tells a tale of a man betrayed by an affair between the woman he loves and a friend he thought of as a brother. He recounts the affair, and then asks what compelled him to write. To his own shock, he is writing because of his need to forgive and to receive forgiveness. He needs to admit his own failings, adding “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” Just as we are part of the problem, just as we bear our scars that may make it hard for us to open up to those we fear may turn on us, so too we can surprise by a sudden flash of a smile, an unexpected moment of trust. One of my favorite St. Barts memories took place when Dean was still very new to the parish. After the 11:00 service, a young man, only in town for the day, came up to me and asked if he could be baptized. Like any good deacon would, I sought out our new rector, briefed him, and asked how we should proceed. Dean paused for a long moment. Then he grinned like a schoolboy, and said “It’s like Philip and the Ethiopian—'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” So we joined the young man in the chapel, Dean made sure he knew what he was getting himself into, that he understood the promises he was making, and –well, we baptized him. On the spot. Right then and there. So we’re not just our flaws. We’re not just our failures of courage or of love. We’re also our moments of generosity, of spontaneous kindness. Our very failures can fuel our becoming our best selves. We members of the Church, as followers of what the Apostles called “the Way,” owe each other a fundamental commitment to each other’s well-being. And by well-being, we mean their own flourishing as a unique child of God, and embracing the flesh and blood reality of the human being standing in front of us. That commitment is a choice to embrace each other, as we are, in the light of truth, binding up the wounds of division and hurtfulness. As long as we continue that work, the binding up of wounds, the reaching out in love, our house will stand. Because a house built on love will not fall. It cannot fall. And it will prevail. In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.