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Bishop's Homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 21, 2024

[At Evensong at St. Andrew Episcopal Cathedral, Honolulu]

In the Sixteenth Century, the Catholic Church was a very sick sheep, fat in its own self-indulgence, weak through nepotism among the highest clergy, and diseased in its pride.  As sometimes happens, healing can hurt a great deal, and it did hurt when Martin Luther protested some of the Church’s practices, ultimately resulting in division of the Church into other ecclesial communities we now refer to as Protestants.  It took this shock for the Good Shepherd to begin healing the Catholic Church, as it embarked on a vigorous program of repentance and reform, not denying what it truly believed, but trying as much as possible to be more faithful to the Good Shepherd.

As the centuries went on, those who broke away in protest found that others broke away from them, and still others broke away again and again.  If these sad divisions were not so, we would not be here today praying for Christian Unity, asking the Good Shepherd to unite us all again into one flock.  Each one of these communities identifies itself as faithful to the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ; yet none is perfect, and each one has its own weaknesses the Good Shepherd wants to heal.  And the risen Jesus, our Lord and Savior, continues to reach out to each of these sheep to bind up the wounded, to heal the sick, to seek out the stray, and to lead them all to good pastures.  Sometimes we allow him to shepherd us rightly by being open to the repentance and reform that he knows will lead to our healing, but sometimes we kick against the goad and would rather go our own ways.  Like Peter, who swore he would be faithful to the Lord until the end, but just a few moments later denied him three times, sometimes we would rather cling to our own ways of doing things than lay down our lives to serve the Lord.

And so from time to time, the Good Shepherd brings all his straying sheep together, so that we can affirm each other in what is good, and perhaps challenge each other to diagnose what healing we may yet need from the Good Shepherd.  We can act as one flock, united in love, when we pray and worship together, and although we may have different styles of doing so, we know that raising our minds and hearts to God in praise is something we all value.  We can act as one flock when we work together in service to the poor and the sick, in care for our common home, and in affirming the dignity of those who are deprived of their liberty in various ways.  We can act as one flock when we work together to confront domestic violence, war, and a throw-away culture.  There are many ways we can be responsive to the deepest desire of the Good Shepherd that we be one flock, united in our love for him.

Yet even as we affirm our unity in prayer and service to those in need, we know it is still too easy for us to go our own ways.  Like Peter, we want to warm ourselves by thinking we are close to the Lord Jesus in his sufferings, but when we are confronted with the concrete realities of life, we often turn to self-preservation mode, saving our own ways of thinking while in effect denying the Lord and the Truth that he is.  Our sexual ethics, our views of marriage and family, and our respect for life become widely divergent.  No matter how much we may speak of our fidelity to the Lord, every one of our churches is capable of denying him.  It is perhaps God’s desire to bind up our sickness and woundedness by bringing us together to be a bit uncomfortable with one another, so that we may never be filled with the pride that divides but be more open to the pain of change that often comes with healing.

If I may be honest, I sometimes think of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as the storied family Thanksgiving dinner, where diverse members of the extended family gather, even though they are so different that they do not naturally tend to congregate.  There is excitement about seeing our relatives and catching up on the latest news; but we hope all will be polite enough to not open the closets where our skeletons lie, nor to bring up topics that will cause tensions among us.  Yet how important it is for that family to gather, even if only once a year, to strengthen its ties.  So it is with us.

Each church represented here is called upon to sit before the risen Jesus, knowing that we have all failed in some way and denied him.  Yet the Lover of our souls asks each of us the most piercing and embarrassing question: “Do you love me?”  Like Peter, it is easy to answer in the affirmative, yet the Good Shepherd knows that healing does not always occur spontaneously.  And so he asks us again and again, “Do you love me?”  In doing so he reminds us each time that the best way to affirm our love is not simply to do so in words, but in the hard work it takes to feed the sheep.  Even as we know there are so many wounds and divisions the Good Shepherd still needs to heal in us, he still gives us a share in his own mission, sending us out to feed all the sheep in the world, so that there may be one flock, one Shepherd.