©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.
What are the top ten most intractable divisions between people that you can think of this morning? What tools have leaders used to try to bridge those divides, or eliminate them? And how much hope do you have that in your lifetime those opposing sides will come together for once and for all, and be able to work together with respect for each other’s voices and well-being?
Last week, I responded to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (or not-Paul’s sermon to churches in Asia Minor), about the partnering of theology and prayer. Theology is only a fun game without the prayerful dialogue with God to make it real. It is when the two come together that faith may take root and grow.
So what? To what end? To what end faith? Is faith an end in and of itself? Some traditions say yes. For some traditions it is the leap of faith that is the goal. But in our two traditions faith is often a stepping stone to action.
We have good reason to believe that faith naturally does and should lead to action. Our ancestors in the Hebrew Bible tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Every prophet’s indictment is for failing to do so. For Jesus, faithful action took the form of food (as in the miracles of the 3,000 and 5,000 and the last supper), healing (of lepers, of possession, of mental illness), and listening (to women, to children, to God).
For the Paul of this letter, an additional task follows from faith: bringing together different types of Christians.
Jesus as a Jewish man was speaking to a predominantly Jewish audience. In the light of the Easter mystery, his good news spread well beyond Judea, which brought a need to reconcile the Jewish and the Gentile Christians to each other. This Paul gives it a try:
You used to be the circumcised and the uncircumcised. You used to have your religious differences marked in your skin. But now those of you who were once so far apart are made one in Christ. In Christ’s skin, in his willingness to risk that skin unto death, there are no more differences between us. Jesus has put all hostility to death and now we are all members of the household of God.
Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it? All letting go our past practices and demarcations so that we can at last be happy and at peace in God, together.
I invite you to join me in a little thought experiment to see how this teaching might have been received.
Look at us here today. Look at our churches that have worshiped together every summer for over 50 years. Then look at how we retreat to our home sanctuaries. What if we received a letter urging us, in faith, to set aside our differences to become as one year-‘round? What would we have to let go, put behind us, in order to honor all that Jesus did to break down dividing walls?
Let’s start by comparing our two faith statements. The “Confession” of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) reads:
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God…(the) Lord and Savior of the world.
One of the faith statements of the United Church of Christ (we have two) reads:
In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the whole creation to its Creator.
So we are pretty agreed on Jesus. But elsewhere we diverge. The Disciples confession makes no mention of crucifixion or resurrection. The UCC does, and adds in sin and eternal life. Part of that may be because ours is just longer. Yet length in-and-of itself is a theological statement: The UCC authors felt like more had to be said than the Disciples did.
This is not a critique. I’m not coming into your house to tell you that you are wrong and we are right. To be honest, the Disciples confession feels more like the UCC as I experience it, than our own. But how easy do you think it would be to bridge those official theological differences? Not to mention our differences in worship, sacraments, and buildings?
I am not actually advocating for a merger. But if even considering such a thing has bumped up blood pressure among those of us who worship together annually, how could it have felt to the Jewish and Gentile Christians of the first century?
It feels so good to host Food at First. It feels so good to successfully bring more money for affordable housing into our community. It feels so good to visit each other in the hospital and deliver hot dishes in a time of crisis. Caring for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—through food, healing, and listening—feel so good. That work of faith is easy.
But give up our religious traditions?
POINT TO GOD
I don’t actually think there is a strong parallel between the Jewish/Gentile divisions of the early church and the denominational ones of today. I want to believe that the kinds of faithful action we do is more important that trying to unify Christianity.
But it does highlight the defining act of faith, one that can be forgotten in church, forgotten even when we are doing God’s work: giving our attention, in all times and in all ways, first and foremost to God.
Does our work as churches point to God or to ourselves? When we make decisions about how to serve others in the world, and how to serve God, in worship, in our budgets, in our buildings, is our first question where God is in the process? Do we get hung up on details that distract from rather than the details that define our relationship with God?
If the faithful work of Jesus was to eliminate boundaries and put hostility to death so that humanity might be as one, then our Board and Committee meetings should be a breeze. Because what is at stake in the work of faith is not what musical instruments to use or how to remodel a sanctuary. It is a freedom to love, to give, and to live that transcends all of our institutional traditions and which we can only barely conceive.
GOD IN ALL PLACES
And that’s why I love these joint services.
I love that over 50 years ago, at a time when women were barred from credit, when gay people where being electrocuted into a false cure, when African Americans were barely legally human, our two probably pretty straight and white churches decided to chuck religious tradition to the wind in order to literally be as one in the body of Christ.
I find hope for all of those terrible divisions we named at the beginning of the service because for over half a century our two representatives of one of the most intractable and inflexible institutions ever created—church—have decided to be flexible.
For all the tools of legislation, money, and social media, that humanity has, with which to resolve rifts, the most important tool that we have as Christians is our faith in God in Christ. And that faith tells us that God is not only at 6th and Clark or at 6th and Kellogg, but at both 6th and Clark and 6th and Kellogg. So we know that God is also on Iowa Avenue at the mosque, on Calhoun Avenue with the Jewish congregation, and just off Highway 30 at the Cornerstone church. God is in North Korea. God is in Israel. God is in Palestine. God is in Black America. God is in White America.
God in Christ has already broken down all walls and put all hostility to death. Do we have enough faith to act as if that is true all year ‘round?