Christian Unity: Its Role in Our Society

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17:11

Do you want to understand what truly matters to people? Pay attention to their prayers. In John 17, Jesus shares his high priestly prayer, revealing his deep concerns and care for us as he intervenes on our behalf before God. At the heart of Jesus’ plea for his church is a desire for unity, as exemplified by the oneness of the Trinity.

The Crucifixion, Giotto, 1307

Christians call this unity communion, which means “oneness with.” We are brought into harmony through the mystical and sacred union with God achieved by Jesus’ sacramental body and blood. This profound connection bears witness to the union between Jesus and the Father, affirming his divine purpose to bring life to the world. Jesus repeats his plea for unity among his followers throughout the prayer, emphasizing his desire for all to be one with God and each other, just as he and the Father are one. This unity is vital, enabling the world to see and believe in God through Jesus. (John 17:21)

Our world is rife with conflict, violence, prejudice, and division, leading to a breakdown of human connectedness and the resulting pain and damage. Unfortunately, even within the church, we often reflect the same worldly tribalist tendencies and behaviors without introspection or remorse. This goes against the Lord’s vision for the church and presents a poor example to those outside the faith who long for a more compassionate and united way of being human amidst the extreme factionalism of our culture.

The cheap and easy communication tools afforded to us by social media sadly seem to do more tearing apart the body of Christ than uniting. Harsh and biting voices are given a platform with amplification making their words carry more weight than they should.

I recently heard an excellent talk by John Meacham about the role of Christian leaders in civil society. “If the American Republic is going to long endure. It will endure not least because of an Anglican Sensibility. The air you and I breathe theologically is one of complexity and tolerance and having the courage to admit you don’t know everything.”

Demonstrating humility in this manner reflects a profound comprehension that none of us possess the complete picture, and we are all capable of making mistakes and surrendering to our negative tendencies.

So Meacham challenged us as Christian leaders:

“Here’s what you all can do stop lamenting and start leading. We know things are bad. We’ve had an insurrection; we get it. Okay, things are so terrible, yes, they’re terrible. Why? Because people tend to be terrible. Okay, this is your job, for God’s sake; I mean, y’all are dealing with first principles. What are you commissioned to do? You’re commissioned to forgive sins, and you’re surprised that the world is sinful?… If everybody loved their neighbor, guess what? Jesus wouldn’t have had to command it!”

John Meacham, Episcopal Parish Network Keynote 2023.

The essence of Christian leadership is to remind ourselves of the Gospel’s power to save sinners through God’s grace. In and through gracious respect for the dignity of every human being, we are empowered not to harm each other despite our propensity to sin. Leadership requires bringing this message of God’s redemptive claim of our lives to our collective hearts and minds. As Meacham would challenge: “In this time in which we live, the church has a huge role to play to help our democracy and our relationships with one another to walk this path.”

As the church, our duty and mission have always been to fulfill this responsibility.  We are agents of the gospel and ambassadors of Christ to commissioned for the redemption of humanity.

In Ephesians, the Apostle Paul refers to “mystery” to explain how God works through the church to reveal His plan for the world. (Ephesians 3) Paul then transitions into a prayer for the unfathomable love of God, asking for spiritual strength and for Jesus Christ to dwell within our hearts. As a result, we come to understand God’s vast and extraordinary love.

A new and wonderful phenomenon is emerging in the world through the power of God. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are uniting people from different cultures, languages, and backgrounds. Former enemies are finding reconciliation, while Jews and Gentiles are discovering peace with God through the cross. Laws no longer govern our relationships but by mercy and grace. The blood shed on the cross gives us all access to God; through this entryway, we are baptized into a new identity and humanity. We become a unified structure, citizens and members of the same household, and a spiritual temple for God’s spirit to reside in.

Paul contemplates the profound advantages of the Gospel and offers a prayer for the church, recognizing that its influence extends beyond itself. The Gospel is of immense importance to the world, as it brings about the most crucial outcome of Gospel ministry: unity with God and among people. As the barriers of hostility are dismantled, and the new community of believers comes into being, the Holy Spirit’s radiance illuminates the living temple that rests upon the cornerstone of Jesus Christ and the foundation of the apostles. According to the divine plan, this disclosure signifies the unification of all things in heaven and on earth under a single leader, ultimately allowing God to reign supreme through the one head, Jesus Christ. (See Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23)

As followers of Christ, our unity in Him holds immense importance in the spiritual world as we fight against Satan and the forces of evil. We arm ourselves with spiritual weapons and armor to engage in this battle. Even when it may seem like the Gospel is not making a difference, we find solace in Jesus Christ being the ultimate authority. It’s crucial to remember that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, a fact often overlooked in our current political disputes within the church.

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior,
The Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the
Great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away
all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body
and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith,
one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all
of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth
and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and
one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 818)

The Community of the Redeemed

Sermon on Christian Community

The tendency of the church today is to focus on the positive and ignore the negative. We focus only on the joyful and happy, but that’s not true to reality. We all have areas in our lives where sin has captivated our hearts and minds and manifested itself in our character. However, what God envisions for his people is to bring us out in a New Exodus, delivering us from sin and its negative effects in our lives.

We read in Exodus 12 where the deliverance of Israel required a costly blood sacrifice, and then in the Gospels, Jesus redefines the Passover by saying, “I am the Passover Lamb, whose blood is shed for you.”

God is enacting a New Exodus by gathering his people – Jew and Gentile – out of this world and bringing this redeemed group of sinners into a collective community called the Church. All of those redeemed sinners have brought in their issues and defects – anger, selfishness, habitual sins – into this community of the redeemed. The people of God are a motley crew.

Not only do we come with our own personal flaws, but we also carry with us our own backgrounds of nationality, race, social class, and economic status, which lead us to misunderstand and sin against each other.

The Greek word for sin is hamartia, which literally means “to miss the mark,” like when you shoot an arrow and don’t hit the target. When we sin against each other, we miss the mark of how we should treat each other.

It’s interesting to be thinking about community when we have all been quarantined away from each other for so long. As we begin to start gathering back together, it is very likely that after 6 months apart, many of us are out of practice and have lost our social cues. We have become so used to isolation that we will have to re-learn how to be gracious to each other.

We can miss the mark by being critical of each other, backbiting, being angry or frustrated toward each other, ignoring each other’s needs, failing to communicate well, being judgmental, being verbally abusive (I’m looking at you, social media.), being sexist, being cliquish, telling jokes at each other’s expense, being irresponsible, being arrogant, snobbish, rude, and boastful. We hurt each other all the time.

It is actually remarkable that God would bring together this group of sinners in the first place, but he does it as a way to model what the heavenly community could look like. This is why the Church is called to be salt and light, a vision for how God intends for us to treat each other.

Sometimes the church is called the “beloved community,” and that reminds me of wedding vows. A bride and groom vow to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until they are parted by death. This is the same love that each member of the Church is called to have for their fellow believers. Note that at the beginning of the wedding service, the officiant opens with “Dearly beloved…” He’s talking to the congregation there, as people who are called to be in covenant community with both God and each other.

The problem with trying to be happy all the time is that it’s mostly fake. Like Disney World, the “happiest place on earth,” the entire environment has to be artificially manufactured and tightly controlled in order to maintain that image. That is not real life. When the Church tries to apply this model, that is hypocrisy.

It’s actually in the sick times, the hard times, the unhappy times that we prove our genuine faith and manifest the Passover community of people who have been saved by grace. Jesus tells us to intentionally address the hard things:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 

Matthew 18:15

We are pressing through the hard times in order to win each other. This is the model of brotherly love. Notice that in Matthew 18, Jesus instructs us to address an issue with our brother directly rather than talking to everyone else about it. Isn’t that the opposite of what we normally do? In today’s world, the first thing a person does when they are offended is write a nasty post on Facebook, telling the whole world about how they were wronged. This is the way of the world, not the way of faith. The result of that kind of behavior is destruction.

A popular phrase right now is “cancel culture” – withdrawing support from a company or individual that is no longer deemed worthy after a public mistake or failure. However, this is completely antithetical to the Christian faith and life. No one is “cancelled” or beyond redemption. We are to respect the dignity of every human being, even the worst of sinners.

The Bible warns us about making up our minds without knowing the whole story:

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:17

The problem with “cancel culture” is that it doesn’t allow both sides of the story to come out, and it doesn’t allow due process to run its course. Jesus outlined a due process for reconciliation between parties, which maintains respect and dignity while working through a grievance. Yes, sometimes people are stubborn and hard-hearted, and it is necessary to bring in other parties to mediate. But the goal is reconciliation, not destruction.

Bringing a grievance to the attention of the entire community should be a last resort, not a first course. The aim of even the most severe interventions is to win them, not “cancel” them. No person is a lost cause in Christ.

We should never underestimate the power of grace, the power of the blood of the Passover Lamb to save. We should never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit of the living God.

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:20). This doesn’t just apply to a worship service or Bible study; it applies to a private meeting to try to resolve conflict, too! The Holy Spirit manifests in a powerful way to transform people’s hearts and bring resolution and renewed relationship where there was conflict.

The sweetest moments in Christian fellowship are when we actually deal with the difficult challenges and problems in our communities, and we do the unnatural thing of avoiding gossip and instead seeking to work it out. Jesus shows up and glorifies his name in our midst as we contend for one another in our Christian communities. The presence of the living God binds on earth with the keys of heaven the community he has redeemed.

The Gospel of Grace

Sermon on Justification, Peace, and Grace

The more I read the Bible, I am continually reminded how relevant God’s Word is to our current circumstances and current events.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage says:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:35-36

The word “harassed” struck me as particularly relevant right now. The definition of harassed is “subjected to aggressive pressure or intimidation.” It has to do with being attacked or bullied, under stress and pressure. In addition, “helpless” means “unable to defend oneself.”

As we look at the state of affairs in our country, many of us say that we have never seen it so bad. So many people are legitimately “harassed and helpless.” So much is being stirred up; so many are crying out for something they do not have; mutual recriminations are being lobbed across partisan lines; we are fearful and isolated because of disease.

In the middle of this time, our Gospel passage assures us: No matter who you are, Jesus sees you, and he has compassion for you.

Then this Sunday’s Epistle passage says:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2

The words that stand out to me from this passage are “justified,” “peace,” and “access.” They are relevant to the discussions around race relations that we are having right now. As I learned in my conversations with black pastors after Trayvon Martin was shot in our community in Florida, both sides were often so busy trying to prove their own points that we didn’t actually listen to or understand what the other side was saying. We were trying to justify ourselves, but self-justification is how we get off the rails with one another. When we try to justify ourselves, we do that by judging others.

We point fingers at someone else or some circumstance outside ourselves, saying “There’s the problem.” Religious people have a strong tendency to do this, claiming that we are the solution rather than part of the problem. The Apostle Paul shuts down this way of thinking by saying, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). We are all alike under sin. You know the old saying that says that whenever you point a finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself. We are all to blame. We are all the problem. None of us will find justification in ourselves.

But Paul goes on to say that although we can’t justify ourselves, thanks be to God that he provides justification freely as a gift through Jesus Christ. So there is no room for boasting or self-righteousness (3:27).

Justification isn’t the full answer, though. The Epistle passage also talks about peace. We can’t talk about healing relationships until we talk about justice.

In 1956, Autherine Lucy became the first black student at the University of Alabama. However, after only one day of classes, such violent protests broke out on campus that they revoked her admission. In response to this situation, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said this:

I agree that it is more tension now. But peace is not merely the absence of this tension, but the presence of justice. And even if we didn’t have this tension, we still wouldn’t have positive peace. Yes it is true that if the Negro accepts his place, accepts exploitation, and injustice, there will be peace… But it would be a peace that boiled down to stagnant [complacency], deadening passivity and if peace means this, I don’t want peace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” March 8, 1956

In the same sermon, Dr. King referenced the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:34, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Dr. King was quick to say that neither he nor Jesus were advocating violence as a way to promote justice. Rather, they were advocating creating tension in order to aspire to the full vision of the Kingdom of God.

When Jesus spoke those words, he was speaking in the context of the Pax Romana, which was an enforced peace that harassed and bullied people into submitting to Roman rule. Disruption and tension were not tolerated. Sure, it created peace on the streets, but it also created extreme injustice.

In today’s world, we are in those moments again. We need to have difficult conversations about justice and equality, but we have a fear that if we allow these conversations to go to far, they will spiral out of control into violence. When we get too much tension, we end up with anarchy and chaos. And yet we have to allow some level of tension in order to bring about change that promotes the Kingdom of God here on earth.

The tension between peace with justice and peace without justice creates a real challenge that we must face.

One of the problems with many of the solutions this world has to offer is that the number of solutions are quite limited. Often our solutions are legal – policy changes, government changes. You can’t change a heart by changing a law, and this is a gospel message that the world desperately needs to hear. This world will not be changed by law, but by grace.

When Jesus looked out upon the “harassed and helpless” crowds and compared them to “sheep without a shepherd,” he knew he was there to be their Good Shepherd. He knew he was going to lay down his life for his sheep, die for all of their sins. And he knew he was going to die not only for the harassed and helpless, but also for the harassers and oppressors. He died for them all.

He laid down his life in order to offer us a type of access that this world can never offer us, a type of justification this world can never offer us, and a type of peace this world can never offer us. We have justification before God as a gift of God through the righteousness of Jesus. We have peace with God through Jesus and access directly into the presence of the living God through Jesus.

Paul goes on to say:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Oh, how this world desperately needs to hear that message of grace. I know I need to hear it. It is the answer to the root problem of humanity.

After Jesus looked with compassion upon the harassed and helpless crowds, he issued this challenge to his disciples:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Matthew 9:37-38

He challenged his disciples to pray earnestly for workers who would go out and take God’s miraculous message of grace, justice, peace, and access out to the world. When we begin to pray this prayer, we gain the heart of Jesus and we take on the mission of Jesus.

When we find ourselves making it a battle against flesh and blood, arguing with and judging others, we need to back up. We need to remember that we are united as a human family in our need for salvation and grace, and God has given us a Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.

The Mirror of the Cross

Luke 12:49-53

Not Peace, But A Sword

Sometimes I hear the words of Jesus, and I’m immediately struck that I think, That doesn’t sound like Jesus. For example, when we call him the Prince of Peace, but then he says, “I have come not to bring peace but division.” And then he goes on to clarify what he means by division, “I’m going to bring division right through the middle of the family unit. Father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.” How can this be? Well, first of all, you need to know that I do believe these are the words of Jesus. Absolutely.

But we have to wrestle with them, trying to understand what the Prince of Peace is challenging us with. There’s a strong resonance with Jesus’s words when he says, “I have come to cast fire on Earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Strong resonance with the words of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Truly his winnowing fork is in his hand. He has come to clear his threshing floor” (Luke 3:16-17). Jesus is saying nothing different than John the Baptist. There is an aspect to the Ministry of the Lord and Savior of the world which is an aspect of judgment and condemnation.

Baptism of Fire

He has come to bring a baptism of fire to this world. As Jesus often referred to his baptism, not only is he referring to the baptism he received in the River Jordan with John, but he looked forward to the baptism which would be the cross.

Remember the conversation that he had with James and John when they said, “Hey, when you get to your kingdom, can I sit on your right hand and you know maybe let John sit on your left hand?” (I don’t know which one was bucking for the left or the right, but they were both wanting to be right there ruling with Jesus.) And Jesus says to them, “Let me ask you guys a question. Can you drink the cup which I am about to drink? Can you be baptized with the same baptism?” They said, “Oh, yes we can.” (See Mark 10:35-39.) But really they did not know what they were saying, because he was speaking about the cross.

For Jesus, the cross was the baptism which he was agonizing over in great distress until it was accomplished. More than that, he would look forward to the baptism which would come through the outpouring of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Baptism would involve death and resurrection.

Parables of the Vineyard

So how is the baptism of the cross a revelation of the fire and the judgment upon the earth? It’s a little bit complex, but stay with me. In the prophet Isaiah, chapter five, we hear a parable of the vineyard where Isaiah the prophet tells what starts off as a wonderfully sweet story about “my beloved” – the Lord – who has who has created this wonderful vineyard for his bride. The vineyard has a nice hedge around it, and it’s got a watchtower, and he’s planning some wonderful vines. But then the stewardship of that vineyard was for naught; it actually was for evil. When the lord of the vineyard comes in, he looks at his vineyard. He sees it not producing sweet wine but wild grapes, and all of the sudden what starts off as a beautiful story turns into one of concern and judgment. The lord of the vineyard destroys the hedges and tears down the watchtower and judges that vineyard as a corrupt and wicked vineyard because of the bloodshed and the unrighteousness of the people of Israel.

Jesus would recast that entire story and tell it again. He would tell about a man who was the owner of a vineyard who went away for a long journey. He decided to send some servants to take account of how the vineyard was doing. He would send one servant, and they would beat the tar out of the servant. So he sent in another one, and they beat him up, too. The owner thinks to himself, I know what I’ll do. I’ll send my son. But instead of the tenants embracing the son as the master of the vineyard, they think to themselves, Here’s the heir. And they decide to kill him in order to have the vineyard for themselves, for their own evil agenda. And that’s exactly what they do.

Jesus would say to the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees, which were basically the various political parties of the day, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” He was telling the story about himself. (See Matthew 21:33-44.)

The Cross is a Mirror

You see, the cross is like a mirror. It reveals just how ugly human beings can be towards their God. Just how evil, and corrupt, and prideful, and self-centered human beings can be in their political agendas and their factions – in their hatred of the ways and the holiness of God.

And when God sends his only begotten Son because he loves his vineyard – he loves the world, instead of embracing him, the political systems of his day (both religious and secular, the Romans and the Jews) crucify him.

So when we when we align our lives with that cross and we say, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” what we do is we lift up the mirror of human sin, and everybody that’s confronted with that mirror has to make a choice about how they’re going to live their life. They will look in that mirror and say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or they’ll say, “No, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that bad.”

There’s no way getting around the baptism by fire that comes from having the cross of Jesus Christ lifted up. What happens as people begin to appropriate Jesus into their lives is that it becomes a dividing line within families.


I remember when I became a very strong Christian in college, and I had to tell my father that I was going to go into the ministry. He said, “That’s not the plan that I have for your life.” The plan had been that I would inherit the family car wash business. For three years, my calling became a source of tremendous conflict with my father.

It gets worse than that. That was minor compared to what some have gone through for the name of Jesus Christ. Twenty years ago, I was counselling with this wonderful young couple. I thought that out of all the young couples I had counseled, they were so fun, and they really loved each other. They were just a great match. I was so excited about doing their wedding, and every time we met, I had a great time with them. Then one day they came into my office for premarital counseling, and they were just despondent and in despair. They told me they were calling off the wedding. I asked, “Why? Y’all are great!” It was his family. They were Iranian Catholic, and they looked at her, an Episcopalian. They said, “You cannot marry her unless she becomes a Roman Catholic. And if you do without her converting, we will disown you.” That’s family pressure. Family ties are powerful, and sadly this young man chose to stick with his family rather than embrace the new possibility of a wonderful Episcopalian bride.

But think back to the pressures of the early Church where the powerful ties of ethnicity and Jewish identity were challenged to the core. God was creating this new Church in which racial divisions, socioeconomic divisions, and ethnic identities would all fall away, and the dividing walls of hostility would come down at the foot of the cross. The biggest conflicts of the early church were racial conflicts, ethnic conflicts, socioeconomic conflicts. It’s what all the letters of Paul are about. The cross of Jesus Christ calls you to a new reality which will challenge the old patterns of family tradition and heritage right to the core of their being.

Acknowledging Slavery

Four hundred years ago in 1619, a British ship intercepted a Portuguese ship and captured twenty what they called, “odd Negroes” – twenty Africans that were enslaved to be taken and pressed into slave labor. This British ship landed in Jamestown with these twenty Africans, and they were sold into slavery. This next weekend, we will be commemorating the anniversary of that event. The National Park Service, and especially Jamestown, has invited churches around the country to ring bells at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th in order to remind us about that first moment where slavery of African-Americans got its seed in this country. It’s going to be a very powerful moment for our country, and we’re going to ring bells here at St. John the Divine.

I want to tell you a little personal story about that. Two years after those Africans landed in Jamestown, in 1621, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Randall Holt, landed in Jamestown. He was rounded up by the Orphan Act in London and forced to be an indentured servant to Dr. Pott, who was the first doctor of Jamestown. When an indentured servant received his freedom rights, he was given a barrel of corn and a new suit of clothes from head to toe. The Christmas that Randall received his freedom rights, he married the girl next door, who happened to be the heiress of a thousand acres of land across from Jamestown and the James River. (She was a good catch!) The Holts have owned that property for about two hundred years.

As I’ve studied my own genealogy, I think it’s interesting, and I think a lot of people you know maybe have ancestors who were indentured servants. But there is a major difference with Africans. Some of those Africans that were brought over in 1619 were indentured servants and given their freedom rights, but others were not. Institutionalized slavery became a norm for the colonies and eventually the United States of America. The values which we expressed, both in our founding documents like the Declaration of Independence – that all men were created equal and given inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and in the pulpits of our churches, began to support the institution of slavery. I can look back in my own genealogical history and see where Holts left their black slaves to other Holts in their wills. Personally, I’m not at all proud of that history.

Confronting Racial Divisions

One mile away from the church that I was a pastor in Orlando a young man of 17 or 18 years old named Trayvon Martin was shot as he was walking home with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea and a hoodie on, looking a little scary, apparently. A man named George Zimmerman overreacted, to say the least, and a conflict ensued, and the result was that Trayvon Martin was shot. That happened right across the street from my daughter’s elementary school. As the environment of the news and the politics of all of that started to really heat up in that area and around the national news and even around the world, there was a part of me that said, Stay out of that; don’t get involved. But I called up one of my black pastor friends named Lowman Oliver and I said, “Lowman, I was driving my daughter to school, and she pointed at the memorial to Trayvon Martin, and she said, ‘Is that where that young boy got shot?’ And I realized that I couldn’t stay out of it. I would like to go to lunch with you, Lowman.”

That started a conversation between me and Lowman, and we decided between the two of us to invite all of our clergy friends to come to Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Sanford, Florida, on Good Friday to pray for our community. Black and white, we had an equal representation at the front. All of the clergy of Seminole County that came to that gathering stood facing the four walls of our church, and we prayed for our country and for our nation and for our community, that the Lord would protect us from the political agendas and divisions that were happening and lead us through a very complicated and complex time.

Another day, Lowman and I were walking out of a meeting together, and he said, “You know, Charlie, I’m a descendant of a slave.” I said to him, “You know, Lowman, I actually am a descendant of an indentured servant myself.” He replied, “Those two things are different.” And I said, “Yes, I know they are. But listen to me. I want you to also hear this. I’m also a descendant of slave owners.” That little conversation started something a little bit deeper for the two of us. It’s very complex, and I don’t know what all the answers are to the challenges that we face in our country.

Hard Conversations

But I do know that almost 80% of African-Americans in this country are descended from slaves. That’s a very significant fact that we have to wrestle with. I also know that we must begin to look inside and confront the challenges that run deep within our very family lines. I could tell you things about my family from a bigoted and racial standpoint that I would be ashamed about and embarrassed about, and I would also embarrass a lot of my family members.

But we nevertheless have to have the hard conversations. Some of those difficult conversations will divide our families in two, and some of those conversations will cause us to look at ugly parts of the inside of our hearts and our lives. Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring fire to the earth.” There’s an aspect in which the unity which God is calling us to will also cause divisions as political agendas, family traditions, and heritages which we have passed down from generation to generation are confronted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And this is a day in which we have an opportunity to embrace that Gospel.

God’s Gift of One Another

Sermon from Ephesians 4:1-16

Being a part of any community can be difficult, and the Church is no exception. It is absolutely essential for us to be mindful of the significance of our calling as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and that we remain united to each other in Him. Paul reminds us of this in Ephesians 4, and he urges us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” There can be no divisions in the Body of Christ, but that is a really difficult way to live. In fact, it is impossible without a miracle of the Spirit of God creating and maintaining the bonds of love between us. He has gifted us all uniquely in order to “build up the Body of Christ,” and we are all required to participate. In fact, this Scripture specifically says that the work of the clergy is to equip the saints for work of ministry! It’s not the clergy who are the big shots in ministry – it is every member of the Church! We need to view each other as gifts of God, purposely designed to encourage each other, build each other up, speak truth to each other in love, and together do the work of God. Each of us has a unique contribution we are called to make to the work of God, and it is critically important that we stay plugged in and engaged in the Body of Christ.

God’s Gift of One Another – Sermon by the Rev. Charlie Holt from The Church of St John the Divine on Vimeo.

Immeasurably More

Sermon from Ephesians 3:1-21

Like Simba in the Disney movie, The Lion King, we are prone to forget who we are, thereby sacrificing both the privileges and the responsibilities as children of the King. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is to us like what Rafiki’s knock on the head was for Simba… A wake-up call. The Lord calls us to dive in to the heart of the challenges of this fallen world. The truth we have is the hope of heaven and earth. God forbid we brush off the troubles of the world by saying, “Hakuna matata, no worries.” Paul says that God has entrusted us with the administration of the gospel to engage in this sinful and broken world. The problems surrounding us are bigger than us, but Almighty God has given us His Spirit to strengthen us and fill us with all His fullness. I experienced this firsthand when I was a part of what God was doing in Central Florida during the situation surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. I saw God’s Spirit move mightily to bring unity and power in His Church during that time. I have seen the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge, and His power is at our disposal as His children. He can do more than we could ever ask for or imagine.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3:20-21

Immeasurably More – Sermon by the Rev. Charlie Holt from The Church of St John the Divine on Vimeo.

Loving the Untouchables

Sunday morning sermon on Mark 5:21-43

This sermon is about another “Mark sandwich” found in chapter 5, verses 21-43. Mark shares the story of Jesus’ resurrection of the daughter of Jairus, and the story is split in the middle with another healing of the woman with the issue in the blood. In both cases, Jesus touches someone who would be considered “unclean.” Rather than being defiled by those touches, however, Jesus brings healing and restoration to the unclean. Jesus’ compassion and power declares worthy and lovable those who society considers “untouchable.” We need to take Jesus’ example and love ALL in our society. We are all loved equally as children of God, and each of us as His followers need to love all equally in His name.

Loving the Untouchables – Sermon by the Rev. Charlie Holt from The Church of St John the Divine on Vimeo.

Why Matt Lauer’s Confession Statement Falls Short…

...And What We Can Learn From It.

When Savannah Guthrie of the TODAY show broke the story of co-host Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct and abuse in the workplace, she acknowledged her pain with tears and words:

How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.

I appreciate the honest vulnerability of her question. Whenever someone behaves badly, the hurt caused by their actions spreads far and wide. Private immorality always has public consequences—the collateral damage of sin. In the case of Matt Lauer, the collateral damage caused by his sin has already spread far and wide, and will likely spread farther.

Ms. Guthrie then added,

But I do know that this reckoning that so many organizations have been going through is important, it’s long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women—all people—feel safe and respected.

Indeed, a reckoning is long overdue. The statistics on sexual abuse in the United States are staggering and heartbreaking:

  • One in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
  • Sexual assault is the violent crime that is least often reported to law enforcement officials. A 2000 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 28% of victims report their sexual assault to the police.
  • Only about 2% of all sexual assault accusations reported to police turn out to be false. This is the same rate of false reporting as other types of violent crime.

Of course, there are false accusations that are made. But with the release of Matt Lauer’s statement on the TODAY show, we know that, in his case, the charges are by-and-large true. Here is the full text of Mr. Lauer’s statement:

There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions… To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry. As I am writing this I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.

Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.

Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full-time job. The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling. I am blessed to be surrounded by the people I love. I thank them for their patience and grace.

As far as statements of regret and confession go, this one has much to commend as a start. There is some honest admission of wrongdoing and the expression of a desire to take personal responsibility for that wrong. I pray for him, that God will help him do the hard work needed to repent and recover from these sins, as well as for the recovery and restoration of his victims.

However, as an object lesson in confession, there are places where his statement falls short. I take Mr. Lauer at his word that he has a long road ahead of him of “soul searching” and “repairing the damage,” so this is just the beginning of his own personal reckoning with God and the people he has hurt. But with any statement of apology, there are vital components that need to be included—and here we can learn something for our own confessions.

The Seven A’s of a Good Confession

As a priest, I have often been called upon to hear confessions, make confessions, and work to bring about the reconciliation of parties through confessions. One tool that I have found to be very helpful in evaluating confessions and helping people make believable and effective confessions comes from Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker. Sande outlines the Seven A’s of a good confession:

  1. Address everyone involved (all those whom you affected).
  2. Avoid “if,” “but,” and “maybe” (do not try to excuse your wrongs).
  3. Admit specifically (both attitudes and actions).
  4. Acknowledge the hurt (express sorrow for hurting someone).
  5. Accept the consequences (such as making restitution).
  6. Alter your behavior (change your attitudes and actions).
  7. Ask for forgiveness.

The more egregious the sin, the more important it is to do a good job hitting all seven of the “A’s”.  Let’s evaluate Mr. Lauer’s statement using the Seven A’s as a test.

Address everyone involved (all those whom you affected)

There are no words to express my sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused others by words and actions… To the people I have hurt, I am truly sorry. As I am writing this I realize the depth of the damage and disappointment I have left behind at home and at NBC.

Mr Lauer makes an attempt at the first “A” of a good confession here. But what is notably lacking is any specific reference to the victims themselves. While he does use the catch-all phrase, “to all the people I have hurt,” he then qualifies that statement by specifically naming “home” and “NBC.” What about his victims?

When we are caught in sin, often our first and biggest regret is over the consequence of the sin more than the actual commission of the sin. This is subtle, but we mainly regret getting caught and the consequences that we must now face (in Lauer’s situation, marital problems and loss of a job) rather than the fact that we sinned grievously (abuse of power, sexual harassment, and adultery).  Mr. Lauer is “early days” in coming to terms with his accountability. The more he looks in the mirror honestly (if he can do that, with God’s help), he will see that his sin was a heinous violation of the women who were victims of his abuse of power and influence.

It was also a grievous violation of God’s call to covenant faithfulness in marriage, by the breaking of God’s law against adultery and covetousness. This sin, as he has begun to acknowledge, has caused real damage to his own wife and family.

Avoid “if,” “but,” and “maybe” (do not try to excuse your wrongs)

Mr Lauer struggles here when he says:

Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed.

While the trauma experienced by victims can sometimes lead to an exaggeration of the facts, by this statement Lauer discounts his victims’ charges off the bat.  In order to be helpful, a confession must be believable. When we qualify a confession with “if’s,” “but’s,” and “maybe’s,” we let ourselves off the hook from bearing the full responsibility of the pain we have caused. Mr. Lauer should have left out this qualifying statement. If there was enough truth in the stories, then there was enough to simply express wrongdoing without qualification or rationalization.

Admit specifically (both attitudes and actions)

Here is a real weakness that ties into the previous point about believability. A good confession admits specifically the wrong that was done.

While Mr. Lauer refers to his “words and actions” that caused pain, he does not specifically mention how these words and actions were wrong. Using terms such as “adultery,” “abuse,” “sexual harassment,” or “moral impropriety” would have helped to convince his hearers that he actually “gets it” that he did something wrong—seriously wrong. When we make a confession, it’s helpful to remember that those receiving it know the details; we do not need to rehash them, but we do need to include enough specifics to demonstrate that we understand the pain we caused, rather than using blanket phrases such as, “the words I said,” or “my actions.”

Acknowledge the hurt (express sorrow for hurting someone)

Mr. Lauer does a pretty good job acknowledging the hurt and disappointment he caused his family and NBC. The area in which he could have done a better job is in acknowledging the hurt to the victims of his “words and actions.” We’ve already discussed using more specific terms of what he did wrong, but he also could have more specifically addressed those to whom he did wrong: the women whose boundaries he violated. Acknowledgement of the very real hurt to the very real victims of our sin is one of the hardest but most important aspects of a good, believable confession. (Given the litigious nature of our society, it’s probable Matt Lauer’s lawyers helped craft a statement vague enough to allow themselves room to defend him from the legal consequences of his actions.) This is one of the places where his confession could have been more believable.

Accept the consequences (such as making restitution)

Mr. Lauer’s commitment to repair the damage through soul-searching as a full-time job is encouraging. This is actually the best part of his confession:

Repairing the damage will take a lot of time and soul searching and I’m committed to beginning that effort. It is now my full-time job. The last two days have forced me to take a very hard look at my own troubling flaws. It’s been humbling.

He uses the words “repairing the damage” rather than “make restitution,” but this is essentially the same thing. That damage repair will be needed not only to his home and career, but also—very importantly—to the victims of the abuse. Few are willing to openly state that they are prepared to make such amends and restitution for fear of just how costly such a process might be—materially, emotionally, and spiritually. But abusive behavior has real costs; restitution, to the extent humanly possible, should be offered and made. Lauer’s willingness to make “repairing the damage” his full-time job gives us hope for his future, hope that he will receive a measure of grace.

Alter your behavior (change your attitudes and actions)

Matt Lauer makes a good beginning here by soberly acknowledging the humility that has come to him by seeing his “troubling flaws.” The language of Step 4 in the 12 -Step Program to sobriety is helpful: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” To do a thorough job, this process takes a lot of time and soul-searching. With situations such as Mr. Lauer’s, such a process should be engaged in with the help of accountability partners, such as pastors or godly counsellors. It is not easy, but Matt Lauer is to be commended for his first steps.

Ask for forgiveness

The last “A” of a good confession is tricky. If we have not done an adequate job with the first 6 “A’s” of a confession, asking for forgiveness can feel inappropriate and even insensitive. It is probably best that Mr. Lauer left this part out because of the lack of specificity of this confession and the fact that it is too soon in the process for him to truly come to grips with the damage he has caused and the extent of the forgiveness being sought.

Ultimately, no amount of restitution can eradicate or pay for the violations against the dignity and personhood of another human being or against God’s holy law. Only Jesus accomplished such complete redemption through the ultimate sacrifice he made on the Cross. Matt Lauer will need to rely on the grace of God for help in his journey of restoration—as will his victims.