The United Churches
April 24, 2016
Last Sunday’s service was a triumph, wasn’t it? I really enjoyed it. Rev. Susan Yarrow Morris with the help of Rev. Jill Komura and Eunice Robb wrote an incredible liturgy. Having returning clergy and staff participate and bring a word was so much fun and uplifting. The musicians were amazing. The service soared. For people who have been coming, they probably learned some interesting facts about the church that they didn’t know. I imagine they thought it was interesting and perhaps great, but I am guessing that they weren’t quite as moved as all of you who have been around for 30 – 50 years. For you all, it was probably such a relief! It was a chance to sit again in the church that you remember so well, before the pressures of postmodernity started pushing the church into decline. I’m sure most of us want every Sunday to be like last Sunday, but we aren’t living in that world anymore.
I wonder if Peter felt that way when he was “called on the carpet” in front of the Jewish leaders in Judea for baptizing people who had not yet met the requirements of his faith group. The faith group (also know as the Jews at this point) had some very important rules about faith practice. Certainly adherents had to be circumcised and had to remain pure. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy give a lot of guidance about remaining pure or “clean.” If you are ritually clean, you can become “unclean” by simply hanging out with the “unclean.” An observant Jew, practiced the law, and participated in the rituals to remain clean. As it was the Jews who first started sharing the message of Jesus, they continued their own faith practices as they added the message of following Jesus.
So one day (and you can read all about this in Acts Chapter 10) Peter had a vision while he was praying. In the vision he had become very hungry and wanted to eat. In the vision, the meal dropped down on a sheet and inside the sheet were basically all of the animals that Jews weren’t allowed to eat, according to the law. The voice in the dream commanded Peter to eat and he said “Absolutely not! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” This little scenario played out twice more and then the sheet was withdrawn back to heaven.
Peter came out of the trance bewildered. Just then he had some visitors inviting him to come to the house of Cornelius who was a centurion, a righteous man and a man who was respectful of the Jewish faith. So Peter went. Peter announced shortly after his arrival that as a Jew, he wasn’t supposed to be associating with any outsiders, but that he had this vision from God that helped him to realize that he should never call anyone impure or unclean. Peter and Cornelius continue this amazing dialogue and then Peter preaches to the whole household, telling them about Jesus of Nazareth. And while Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit descended upon those gathered there and it was clearly obvious. They were speaking in other languages and praising God. So, Peter decided as the spirit was present, the baptisms should take place.
Then he got “called on the carpet” as I said and had to explain himself to the church leaders. Peter tells them the whole story ending with “If God gave them the same gift that God gave us, then who am I to stand in God’s way?” Then it says that the church leaders calmed down.
I acknowledge that this was a huge, cataclysmic shift for these people. They shifted though. It is probably improper to suggest that the shifts that we have to negotiate in the church today are as cataclysmic. I think when we think about them, we try to make ourselves ready. Where we find ourselves unable to shift are those places where we have our individual and communal blind spots, because we can only see faith and life through our personal lenses.
Let’s pretend that we here at the United Churches are the Jews and that the Millennial’s are the Gentiles. We are very well established. Our two denominations have been around for a good long time, our two churches about 150 years and we are celebrating the centennial of our federation. We have long established rules, practices and mores. We are an inside group even if we don’t mean to be. We have our own language including words like Narthex, Chancel, Salvation and Sanctification. Most of us understand what we mean when we say these things. And at the same time, we are unaware of our insider language. We really WANT others to join us, once we’ve taught them how we do things here. We want the millennials as long as we don’t have to move the pews, or change the bylaws again. If we were to fall into a collective trance, what would God’s vision be for us?
As we think about this, lets look at the gospel reading. Jesus is in the upper room with his disciples doing a very long good bye speech. He knows that his death is imminent. He knows that he will be betrayed and denied by those who are closest to him. He has already tried to teach his disciples what he expects from them after he is gone by first washing their feet. To the one that he knows will betray him, he shares bread. To the one he knows will deny him, he washes from head to toe. He doesn’t yell, he doesn’t blame. Instead he tries to share what is really important: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must also love one another. This is how everyone will know you are my disciples, when you love each other.” That is it, that is all.
Jesus does not give any other direction at all about building the church, or about the future or about the movement. He just says love one another. That’s it. That’s all. LOVE one another.
I have had the privilege of being with many people as they face their death. In those precious moments, all of the junk of life falls away and people realize that loving one another is really all we have in the end. At nearly every death bed, you hear the same instructions: “Love each other.”
That is the big secret folks. Love one another. The secret to the future of the church, to the future of the movement…the secret of life.
It is also something that we all need to get a lot better at. Here at the United Churches loving and supporting one another within these walls seems to be our biggest challenge. I’m not sure why we have such a hard time with this. Sometimes it is as if we are a collection of causes. We all care about marriage equality and trans bathrooms, about feeding the hungry and about housing the homeless. That is all very important. But how many of us feel truly loved and supported by others in this community. Who can we call when we are lonely and afraid. To whom can we talk with about our deep fears and sense of shame? How do we come along side one another in the midst of a loss? How do we manage conflict and disagreement among ourselves?
The people in this northwestern postmodern culture really don’t care about our two denominations. They certainly don’t care about our governance structure, our by-laws or our committees. They are not impressed by our educated clergy, or our beautiful organ, or even our involvement in the community. What people hunger for is a place to be themselves, a place to be accepted, a place to be loved, a community…a home.
I think when we really get that down, we will be in a much better position to love others outside of this community better.
In Acts we see that Peter realizes that the circle of love, the circle of the Spirit is wide and has room for all. Jesus tells us that the way to perpetuate the movement is simple: Just love each other. Love each other even when we screw up, even when were mad, even when we let each other down. Jesus demonstrates his love for the same disciples who fail him miserably. Jesus washes and feeds Judas who will betray him, Peter who will deny him and all the rest who fail to stand by him in his greatest hour of need. Jesus keeps his focus. He gives the message. Love one another.
Will you join me in loving those around you? Perhaps even the ones you don’t like, or the ones who drive you a little crazy? Can we make this a priority for a while? May it be so.