Monday, January 20, 2014

Sermon: Sunday of Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Here is the sermon I preached on January 19th, 2014

One of my favourite things about this particular church is the singing. I like singing the traditional hymns, it makes me feel in touch with the Christians who came before me, the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, the ones who sang these same words and tunes, drawing strength and courage in times of trouble, or belting out their joy in happier times. Another thing I really appreciate about the music in this church is the strength of the voices. It often seems to me that the volume and intensity of the singing doesn’t increase with the size of the congregation in larger churches. I think a lot of people are just mouthing the words.

I remember when I started attending worship with the “grown-ups”, in that awkward time between being a Sunday school student and a full adult. I knew all the Sunday school songs, but I didn’t know the church hymns. And I mouthed the words.

I don’t mouth the words anymore though. I still sing really really quietly when I’m learning a new song for the first time. Some people are more confident when learning a song for the first time. Those of us who like to sing quietly until we gain more confidence rely on the strong voices of the confident leaders to carry the tune. It is like this in other areas of Church life as well: some people are natural leaders who keep the church organized and accomplishing its mission.

The problem with leadership is that sometimes natural leaders can get carried away. They confuse their own agenda with God’s agenda. They are singing the wrong tune and throwing off the harmony of the church. This is the issue that Paul addresses in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Today’s lectionary passage from this letter was just a preview of what is to come in the rest of the letter. The beginning of Paul’s letter set the tone for the advice that follows. After the initial address and greeting in this letter Paul gives words of encouragement to the Corinthians by thanking God that their lives have been evidence of Christ, and he expresses his confidence that the members of the church in Corinth will be strengthened and become blameless.

It seems like Paul is softening up the Corinthians before he continues on to present them with some hard truths about the conflict they are experiencing in their church. Next week’s lectionary reading with continue this letter, and we will hear Paul tell the Corinthians that he has heard that they have been fighting amongst themselves. He asks “Has Christ been divided?”. Since the church is the body of Christ, he is really asking “has the church been divided?”. The way he puts it is a little more emphatic and stresses the seriousness of the situation. It is one thing to have divided an assembly of worshipers, but this is more than that, this is a division in the body of our Lord.

This week’s passage from Corinthians, combined with next week’s lectionary passage are being used as the focus scripture for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a specific week of the year (that is actually 8 days long) celebrated from January 18th-25th. Each year the World Council of Churches, in partnership with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity publishes worship resources that have been prepared by churches in a specific country for this Week of Prayer.  

Last year the churches in India produced the material, based on Micah 6:6-8. Their theme was “What does God Require of Us?”. This year, the resources were developed in Canada by a group that met in Montreal and Saskatoon. This group included representatives from the Catholic, United, Orthodox, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. The representative from the Presbyterian church was the Rev. Amanda Currie, minister and clerk of the Presbytery of Northern Saskatchewan. As I mentioned before, this group used the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians as inspiration for choosing their worship theme. They named their theme  “Has Christ been Divided?”.

This is the question Paul asks in his letter after he tells the Corinthians that he knows they have been fighting. This remains a serious question to this day, as much of a serious question as it was at the Church of God in Corinth, if not more. Now, not only do we have churches with internal conflict, we also have a multitude of different denominations that disagree on major issues like the role of women in ministry and the status of LGBT people within the church.

The group of Canadian representatives who developed the resources for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity considered the issues in the global church and asked themselves the question: “Has Christ been Divided?”. The answer they came up with was:

“In faith we respond, “No!” yet our church communities continue to embody scandalous divisions. 1 Corinthians also points us to a way in which we can value and receive the gifts of others even now in the midst of our divisions, and that is an encouragement to us in our work for unity”.

I think the part of 1 Corinthians that points us in the right direction for our work towards Christian unity is the part where Paul says:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind, just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The line that stands out for me the most is Paul’s insistence that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” It’s an important message to hear in a conflicted church.

When rivalry springs up between different leaders in the church and people start taking sides, it quickly escalates, and in the tumult we sometimes lose sight of God. When we stop thinking about the role of God in our lives and the power of God’s grace to bring reconciliation in our broken relationships, we become overwhelmed by the negativity of the conflict. We are in danger of being lost in the desolate pit, the miry bog of self-doubt.

We need to hear Paul’s reassurance that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, because in times of major stress and fighting, it’s easy to neglect our own spiritual giftedness. God has given each of us the spiritual gifts that we can use to reconcile with each other. How might this change our approach to conflict if we remembered that we are not lacking any spiritual gift that we need to live into God’s vision of peace in this world? How might it change our approach to conflict if we started looking for God’s spiritual gift in our enemy, remembering that they too are a child of God?

The group of Canadians who assembled in Montreal to plan the resources for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were from a variety of Christian denominations that disagree on these things that we think of as major issues in Christianity. Yet they were able to agree on their answer to the question “Has Christ been Divided?”, and they were able to answer “no”. Surely, in the time of togetherness when they developed this year’s theme, they were allowing their spiritual giftedness to guide them, a giftedness that we all possess and only need to realize more fully.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses a specific form of church conflict having to do with multiple leaders in the church pushing their own agendas. This is just one source among many sources of disunity in our churches and in our lives. Today’s responsive psalm reading spoke to me powerfully about another issue that often stands in the way of reconciliation in our lives.

In the psalm, the writer expresses their joy to God saying “you have given me an open ear”.

I learned this week that this sentence would be literally translated from the original Hebrew as “you have dug ears for me”. I was very struck by this image. These words were written in celebration by someone who had been lifted out of the desolate pit and was now able to hear God’s truth. “You have dug ears for me”. It almost sounds painful, it’s a very physical image, much more than just saying “now I’m a good listener” or “I’ve learned to listen to God”.
I wonder about the process of getting one’s ears dug out. What exactly is the muck and the mud plugging our ears and stopping us from hearing God’s truth? I think it must be all the lies that we tell each other, the lies we tell that come from our own insecurity, the lies we tell when we forget our own spiritual giftedness and speak from the worst parts of ourselves. The muck and the mud that stops up our ears might be the words that we are flinging around during power struggles and conflict in the church and outside of the church.

I found much in today’s psalm reading that spoke to me about how to overcome conflict in the church and in our lives. The lines both before and after the part about “open ears” name different types of religious practices that were common at the time the psalm was written. The author says, “God, you do not require these practices, you only want me to listen to you”. A good lesson for times when conflict centres around the “right” way to worship God.

Another line in the psalm says “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation”. What it doesn’t say is “I have explained to everyone in the congregation exactly how wrong and sinful they are”. The person who wrote this psalm has shared their joy, and not their criticism. They have spoken from their own life experience not to frighten people into a closer relationship with God, but simply to rejoice publicly in the good works God has done in their lives.

I think this psalm also speaks to me of Christian unity simply by the fact that it is a psalm. The Book of Psalms is something treasured and read by all Christian denominations. It contains the words of our ancestors in the faith. These are the words of joy and grief that the people of God have been using to express their spiritual lives for thousands of years!

I said earlier that I enjoy singing the old hymns because they make me feel connected to the Christians of the past. The Book of Psalms contains the oldest hymns we have, words used by Jesus Christ himself as he hung on the cross and spoke the words of Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.

A few years ago I spent several months living in France. In my homesickness, I started attending the only Protestant church I could find: a Baptist Church run by American missionaries. In a lot of ways, the theology of this church was very different than the church that I grew up in, but the greatest comfort was singing the familiar hymns. The words were translated into French, but the tunes were the same.

The pessimist in me, when confronted with the question “Has Christ been Divided?” “Is the Church divided?” wants to answer yes. But when all the angry, nasty words that have been spoken by the church, in the church, and about the church have been dug out of my ears, sometimes all I can hear is the church singing. The church singing the songs of our ancestors. The church singing in unison.

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