Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, The First Congregational Church, United of Church of Christ, Lent 1, March 4, 2001, dedicated to Bruce Vaughn and Desi as they end their time in Columbus and begin a new adventure in Michigan, in thanksgiving for all they have done in my life and the life of Christ's Church and always to the glory of God!
"The Weave: Five Threads to Break Down Divisions in Christ"
(Part 2 of 7 in the Series: "Diversity in Christ: Weaving the Tapestry of God's Love")
Ephesians 4: 4-16
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ Four days ago on Ash Wednesday, I opened this sermon series with four principles of diversity in Christ. The four principles were: 1. The God we worship and proclaim is a God of wholeness, oneness, and shalom; 2. God is revealed in Christ Jesus as a "God with skin on;" 3. Transformation in God's love always begins at the lowest point - the point where we become open to God in a holy, new way; and 4. We must trust and follow the Holy Spirit if we are to embrace diversity in Christ. As always this sermon is available on-line, or found in the information rack by the main office on the 9th Street door, or by calling the church office - it can be mailed to you. Today, because there many divisions in the body of Christ, I propose five threads or steps of faith needed to break down dividing walls currently dividing the body of Christ.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Since the earliest days of the Christian Church, diversity has been the defining word of our faith tradition. From the First Century through the Emperor Constantine, the Church was scattered across the Mediterranean Sea Region, and into parts of Africa and Asia, and Northern Europe as a multiplicity of diverse reflections of Christ, each bearing the signs of their prevailing culture and each strongly confessing two primary beliefs: Jesus Christ was Lord and Savior and the Holy Spirit calls us together and binds us together as the church.
Following Constantine's conversion to Christ in 325 AD and his subsequent conversion of Christianity into the "State Religion" for the Roman Empire, unity - quite often at the cost of life and the destruction of diverse belief groups within the church - became the standard bearer for the faith. Under the new Roman Christian Rule - Creeds, theological simplicity, and adherence to one set of beliefs became "The Way."
But going back to the early days of the Church, we read the Apostle Paul's response to the diverse beliefs and communities of belief in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4:4-16. In these passages Paul speaks of and then elaborates the body of Christ Image. This metaphor says that God created the Christians with differences, has endowed them with different gifts and has designed things so that diversity within the church is natural and normal. One thing is clear in Paul's writings, maintaining unity amidst diversity is particularly challenging when there are disagreements in the body of Christ. Dissension is evident throughout the passage of Ephesians 4 which I just read. In Ephesians 4:14, Paul speaks of those "tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine." In 4:18 he speaks of those who like Gentiles are darkened in their understanding and alienated because of ignorance. In 4:31 he speaks of anger, bitterness, wrath, wrangling, and slander present in the church. He not only acknowledges all of this, but begs them to cease their differences. It is out of Paul's observations and pleadings in the face of pain and dissension, that I draw my first thread. . .
1. Bear with one another in love. He writes, "With humility and gentleness, bear with one another" (Ephesians 4:2). So often, I have seen arrogance and stubbornness in arguments when Christians disagree. I am speaking of myself of course! Yes, that's absolutely true! When I believe something strongly - particularly when it's something I feel I know more about that you, I dig into my position and set up in a foxhole mentality. But, Christ calls me to be humble. He calls me to be gentle. He calls me to bear with one another, not bear grudges or bear arms, but bear with one another - in love.
How are you doing in the "bearing with one another in love" thread? As a congregation, I have seen tremendous strides in the last year. But, I still hear words spoken, actions taken, proposals made that speak more of distrust than trust; more of bearing old grudges than of bearing with one another in love. I tell you today, "be humble as Christ is humble. Be gentle as Christ is gentle. Bear with one another in love, as Christ bears with you because of his deep love for you."
How do you do this? (I thought you'd never ask?)
2. Confess the arrogance of your certitude. You've heard it said (and probably said it to others!) - "Confession is good for the soul." I say to you: " just do it." Some of the most troublesome obstacles to reconciliation are unconscious attitudes on the part of well-intentioned people. It is one of the unfortunate anomalies of religious faith that certainty of conviction often breeds unintentional arrogance. Now, before you try to remove the plank in your neighbor's eye on this one, look in the mirror! I have. I admit to you, I have suggested to many along the way, I would like my bumper sticker to read, "I am intolerant of intolerant people!"
While we nurture and try to encourage openness and freedom of thought and expressions of faith in First Congregational and the United Church of Christ, we too often fall on the sword of our own arrogance of certitude. We grimace when someone strongly states their beliefs which run counter to our beliefs. And although quite often we believe just as strongly as other Christians -- without creeds, doctrine, or long held catechisms to back up every one of our statements of faith - we often feel namby-pamby in the face of strong words from others. So we fall prey to the arrogance of openness. It may not look as ugly to us as the arrogance of a closed system of theology, but it has its own ugliness. I have often said that fundamentalism is not a belief system owned by conservatives in anyone religion. Rather, Fundamentalism crosses the spectrum of theological beliefs and happens when a person or a group of people lock in to practicing the arrogance of certitude. As my best friend from college was apt to do at the end of an argument: "We think, and often we say in various ways, `it's all right to be wrong.'" (Fortunately, he was kidding . . . I think!).
It is much easier to identify the arrogance in one's opponent than in oneself. I know this because I have met the arrogant enemy . . . and to paraphrase Pogo "he is me!" We must face and confess our own arrogance of certitude and practice the humility and gentleness of Christ's love for one another.
3. Find Common Ground by seeing every person as a Beloved Child of a Loving God. In 1999 book, The Divided Church: Moving Liberals and Conservatives from Diatribe to Dialogue, coauthors Richard Hutcheson, Jr. and Peggy Shriver describe an ecumenical laity group that meets regularly in an inn on the slopes of the Great Smokey Mountains. The group ranges in belief from agnostic to millennialist. They have one common opinion among them: Let everyone find the church in which they feel comfortable and leave the rest alone. While this sentiment fits American individualism quite well, and works for this group, it does not square with Christian faith. Jesus, in the last days before his arrest, prayed for unity among the divergent groups within the faith he was bringing, "that they may all be one, as the Father and I are one" (John 17:20-21).
One of the most disturbing and distressing signs of disfigurement I have witnessed in the body of Christ in my lifetime is the segmentation of the church into comfortable communities of common beliefs. One member of my former church upon leaving during our Open and Affirming process in 1995-1996, said to me, "I feel uncomfortable when we talk about certain issues - in this case sexual orientation - and I come to church to feel good and to feel comfortable." Now, I can't find anywhere in scripture where Jesus says, "Come ye all who seek to feel comfortable and I will soothe your soul." I believe he says, "Come ye who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And the people who I have encountered who are heavy laden, don't come here feeling comfortable - rather they are incredibly uncomfortable! Pain, hurt, and isolation are often the feelings of such folks.
To fully become the body of Christ means that we overcome the pain and discomfort of dealing with persons and issues that are strange or even offensive to us sometimes. I liken it to a physician healing a patient. The doctor needs to examine what is the offensive or disturbing in the body or that which is the presenting problem to be able to come up with a diagnosis, and a course of healing. You cannot simply ignore something you don't like or disagree with, because it may become that which tears you up from the inside. Similarly, in the church, we have to deal with our differences, our dissensions, or variety of beliefs without simply separating into comfortable or convenient collectives of Christianity.
Finding common ground may be as simple as finding what is lovely and lovable in another person. Rather than building up defenses because of differences, find what you hold in common. Make lists, if you need to, make comparisons, but try to find common ground.
4. Break the code of silence and secrecy. This may be a foreign thread to some of you. I learned many years ago through the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous a phrase that has stuck with me through the years, "We are only as sick as our secrets." If the body of Christ is to find unity in its diversity, we must - as individuals and as a church - break the code of silence and secrecy. In his autobiography, Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner speaks openly and honestly about his life. He tells of his father's suicide (a family secret locked up from childhood through his late adulthood), his daughter's battle with anorexia and about his own recovery from various addictions in his life. He uses an image I have always found powerful as a metaphor for facing our life troubles and traumas.
In the Tower of London there are two rooms which are adjacent to one another. One room is dark, cold, and tiny. That room is the tower torture chamber where prisoners - kings, queens, and commoners were taken to be held for interrogation or torture unto death. On the other side of the walls from that room in the room in which kings and queens were coronated. It is airy, bright, filled with sunlight. Two rooms, two worlds, two realities immediately adjacent to one another - yet truly as different as night and day.
Living in our silence and the sickness of our secrets as individuals, as families, as a church is like choosing to live in the torture chamber when we could choose to live in the coronation room. We are only as sick as our secrets. What are the secrets you are keeping locked up in the dark, cold room of your life which stands next to the beautiful center of God's light and love?
If the Christian church is to heal the divisions we have to be open and honest about the things which cause us pain or have brought us pain in the past. Likewise, each of us needs to be able to step out of the sickness of our secrecies and face the truth of our lives. In the face of such truth, God will heal, forgive, and guide our steps forward in faith.
5. The fifth and final thread is this - identify with the pain of exclusion that others feel when left out, cast out, or shut out of the church. Several years ago in a new members class at my former church, a young man shared the story of growing up in a small farming community in southern Ohio. Early in his life, he came to know he was gay - although he didn't know the word gay or have a language to express how he was feeling. With his permission, I share this with you. It was in church that he came to know the word "homosexual" and then he realized that's what he was. But, the word was used hatefully. In his words, "I came to realize that the one sin everyone in our church could agree on was the sin of homosexuality. They all hated homosexuals. And I was the sin that they hated." Imagine going to church every Sunday as a child, feeling like you were the sin that people hated.
The pain of isolation can be overwhelming. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, in her address to the graduating class of Harvard University in the 1980's, "It is true that we have terrible poverty in Calcutta. But the poverty you have here in America is the poverty of loneliness. You have the most material wealth of any people on earth, but you have the greatest loneliness as well." Harvard graduates sat in their robes in tears, listening intently and nodding as she hit their core pain.
To be an inclusive church, we must share our stories and listen to the stories of others' exclusion. It is wrong to be excluded. It is painful to feel lonely, isolated, without community, without hope, without a church, without a place to call home. Please share your stories and be open to hearing and identifying with the stories of others. It is in doing so that we will be able to overcome the isolation of our lives of faith - in community.
To become the body of Christ which is unified even in the face of diversity, we must weave these five threads together: bear with one another in love; confess the arrogance of our certitude; find common ground by seeing every person as a Beloved Child of our Loving God; break the code of silence and secrecy and identify with the pain of exclusion that others feel when left out, cast out, and shut out of the church. I invite you to come to the table of grace, come to the table of our Lord, and know that here Christ welcomes and accepts each one of us just as we are! Amen.
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