Awake and be not absent from us for ever:
Wherefore hidest thou thy face?
And forgettest our misery and trouble?
Our belly cleaveth unto the ground:
Arise, and help us, and deliver us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The text which I've just quoted is today's Introit, and is taken from the 44th Psalm. It's difficult to hear, or read, these words and not be struck by their abjectness. The author of this Psalm is clearly at the end of his tether; "our belly cleaveth unto the ground," he says, another way of saying that he can't possibly get any lower than he is. He has reached the point at which he just can't stand it anymore; he feels that God has deserted him and his people, and wonders how much longer it's going to take before God does something.
And looking around at the world we live in, I'm sure any one of us can sympathize. Wars in every corner of the globe; unscrupulous politicians who use their positions to enrich themselves and their cronies; ruthless businessmen for whom any profit is worth the highest of human costs (as long as it is not their own). Decency can no longer be spoken of as common. Morality is treated as a joke by self-appointed sophisticates who deride religion as a pastime of the deluded, and ethics as an unnecessary burden to be jettisoned in the never-ending quest for self-satisfaction. But most of all, this passage makes me think of trouble in the religious sphere. We might think the church should be a shelter from the trials of the world, but even here there is conflict : evangelical and catholic clergy alike are embroiled in scandal, and denominations and jurisdictions are wracked by heresy and schism. There is hardly a major Christian body in the United States which is not experiencing division over issues of faith and practice. Why is this happening to the Church, of all places?
We might wonder. But a look at the history of our faith reveals that this state of affairs is by no means new. In the fourth century A.D., there arose in Alexandria a priest named Arius. Arius' claim to fame--or notoriety--is his development of a theological opinion that the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is not eternal God, but a being created by the Father at a specific point in time. Apparently he was a composer of jingles as well; there are reports of a catchy little tune he wrote to the words "There was a then when he was not," which is supposed to have been quite a hit among the dockworkers of Alexandria. Many churchmen of his time flocked to Arius' banner, convinced by his arguments, but many others, most prominently Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, disagreed violently, and maintained that all three Persons of the Trinity were co-eternal and co-equal. The conflict raged over decades, with ups and downs and twists and turns to rival the most baroque of modern soap operas. The fortunes of the Athanasian party suffered great hardship in their maintenance of the orthodox faith; Athanasius had at one point to flee to Rome, and after having been restored to his see was once again forced to flee, this time to the desert to hide out with some monks. It's important to realize that this was not a matter for snooty prelates to debate at endless sessions in a sparsely-populated conference room; this was something that every man in the street had an opinion about, and over which people frequently came to blows. The parallels with modern controversies hardly need to be drawn. This disagreement had, and has, far-reaching consequences for the Christian religion; indeed, it forced the Church to define very clearly what it believed and how that belief was to best be expressed, so as to not give rise to further disagreement and mistakes.
Eventually, of course, the party of Arius (the Arians) was defeated, and Athanasius' formulations came to be accepted as orthodox. But this was by no means the last such disagreement. The Christological controversies of the fifth century, the eighth-century strife over images, the East-West schism in the 11th century, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 16th century, the Calvinist Captivity of the English Church in the 17th, the disputes in the 19th century occasioned by the Oxford Movement and the Ritualists, and in our time the ongoing trouble in the Anglican Communion. So we can see that, as Solomon observes, there is nothing new under the sun : the strife we are now experiencing is not a novelty to the Body of Christ.
So what are we to do besides petition God for action? Well, there are always those who say that we should be tolerant and allow people to believe what they will. This sounds very good and noble, and superficially very Christian; in a political situation this is indeed the best policy. Freedom of conscience is indispensable to a healthy state. But applied to an ecclesiastical setting, this course of action--or more properly, inaction--is disastrous. The church can no more tolerate heresy than a healthy body can tolerate an infectious disease. If not eliminated, disease will take the body over; if heresy (note that I do not say heretics) is not eliminated, there is a very real danger that it will dominate. Note that I do not say "if heretics are not eliminated"; I am by no means advocating a return to the good old days of the stake or the chopping block. But heresy is wickeder than schism, and it is much more preferable--and more honest--to separate from brethren who have gone astray than to maintain communion with those who have abandoned the faith. You may start by tolerating one bishop's Unitarianism, but rest assured it will not end there; you will wind up with an entire college of bishops who can no longer endorse the Nicene Creed. St Paul exhorts us, in the epistle to the Galatians : "If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that you have received, let him be anathema." This kind of tolerance--the tolerance of the corn for the weed that chokes it--is simply not an option; it is really a way for us to avoid confronting what is wrong while patting ourselves on our backs for our niceness. It is all too easy to mistake "nice" for "good", and in fact, the nice is sometimes the enemy of the good.
Of course, this is not to say that we should not be nice. There is no reason we cannot be polite and charitable, even (and perhaps especially) to those with whom we disagree. And we must not be too ready to brand those we disagree with as heretical; there is a big difference between saying that Jesus is not God and advocating four candles instead of six on the altar. The Creeds are very helpful in determining what is essential to the faith and what is not; if you hear someone teaching contrary to the Creed, then you know something is very wrong. And of course, this is also a reason why it is so important to have trained clergy; part of our job is to help make those distinctions clear, and to be available to answer those questions; and I hope none of you will be shy in asking them, even the difficult ones. It's what we're here for, after all!
In the Revelation to St John, we are given an image of the martyrs--those who have died for the faith--in heaven, imploring God "How long, O Lord, holy and true?" We don't have an answer for this question. God will act in his own time, and will, in the words of C.S. Lewis, restore all names to their rightful owners. All we can do is hold fast to the faith once delivered, that faith which contains the things believed always, everywhere, and by everyone, that faith which the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church teaches. And this means that we need to know what that faith is. We can hardly be expected to exercise discernment in religious matters without some sort of yardstick with which to measure the truth. We are all, clergy and laity alike, responsible for learning about our faith, and continuing to learn and grow in it; and the upcoming season of Lent is a perfect time to begin to dig deeper into the rich deposit of Christian faith and practice. May we all use this holy season as an opportunity to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.