In a recent sermon, our priest Abbott described an encounter she had with a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who visited her house. As she began telling this story, I became physically uncomfortable as I thought of the many times that Jehovah’s Witnesses had visited my house during my childhood. I typically hid, hoping that they would think that no one was home and then quickly leave. I was particularly struck as Abbott described how her conversation evolved as she informed the pair that she was a priest in the Episcopal Church. Instead of ending the conversation, this piece of information sparked the curiosity of the visiting pair. They were very interested in continuing the conversation because as one of them said “You know there’s a lot of misconceptions about who we are and what we do, and our primary aim here is really not to change people’s minds, but I’m interested in where our common ground is because I know it exists.” This gentleman’s words struck me deeply. I knew he understood something that I didn’t. Though I had never really considered it, in fact I never really wanted to consider it, there was surely common ground between a Jehovah’s Witness and an Episcopalian. And in my mind that held a lot of power.
During our most recent Wednesday formation session, Paris had us watch the sermon Bishop Michael Curry gave at his installation sermon. Our new Presiding Bishop presented a clear image of what the people of God are called to do. He called us to go and “turn the world upside down, which is really right side up.” This, Bishop Curry says, is what the Jesus movement is all about. After listening to the sermon and reflecting a bit on it, Paris invited us to write our boldest wishes for the world, no matter how unattainable they seemed. I wrote several down, but the one I dwelled on most was this- “I wish that Christians could focus more on the things that unite us instead of those things that divide us.” After naming our boldest wishes, Paris invited us to write something that we promised to do in an effort to realize our wish. With a great deal of trepidation, I wrote “when talking with people of other traditions, I will listen deeply, setting aside the thought that I have all of the answers, and open myself to new learning opportunities in hopes of better understanding the many ways we as humans are connected.” Even as I wrote this note, I was already making exceptions. “But I know that person X is definitely wrong about x, y, and z, and we (I) have the right answers.” Lord help me.
Anyone who interacts with me will quickly learn that I love the Episcopal Church. I love being a part of it, and I thank God for leading me to it. I think we do a lot of things right, and that’s why I love it. But too often I fall into the trap that I accuse others of: acting like we have all of the answers. Too often I dismiss other views that I believe are wrong. This sort of thinking is often quite destructive, as it almost instantly closes the door on any opportunity for dialogue. When we focus more on who is right or who does things correctly, we further divide ourselves and lose sight of what we as Christians, of whatever type, are called to do- spread God’s love and seek justice and peace for all people.
I would be lying if I said this was easy work. It’s not. It’s immensely challenging, and yet at the same time it is incredibly life giving. The really powerful thing that has emerged for me in recent weeks is the reality that Christians of all stripes have to work together to realize God’s dream for the world. We cannot do it alone. We need each other. This might not be the most comfortable or easy thing to do. It might mean partnering with people who have very different views from us. This might look like Episcopalians working with Jehovah’s Witnesses or evangelicals joining with Roman Catholics. As the Presiding Bishop reminds us, as members of the Jesus movement, we are here to turn the world upside down. We can’t do that alone. We need each other. We need to find our common ground, because it does exist. When we find that common ground, when we focus on those things that unite us, we as the Jesus movement working together, with the help of Almighty God, can truly change the world. Let it be so.