Message by Rev. Jenny Carter
August 6, 2017
Earlier in the service, Jenny played this YouTube video to illustrate part of her sermon.
We all heard the opening line of psalm 133. “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Some of us may have let these words simply flutter by, content to acknowledge the beauty of the line, but not letting it land upon us in any real way. Others of us may have given a hearty “Yes!” to these words on unity. Giving a faithful high five to the Spirit. Still others of us may have done the inner eye roll thing, saying, “Surely not another sermon on unity! Sheesh!” So, whatever your reaction to the psalmists words – let’s just all take a moment to refocus – to let go of all the emotion and pre-understanding we have of the word “unity” – so that we can let scripture – the living word – speak to us in fresh ways this morning.
Psalm 133 is an ascent psalm. It was a psalm – a song – used by our ancestors in the faith as they made their pilgrimage to and from Jerusalem. So what? You might well ask? Well, imagine it. Pilgrims didn’t travel alone. They traveled with their relatives, their spouses, their children, their in-laws and their neighbours. Along the journey they would have joined up with other pilgrims – strangers – and together they would have spent sometimes weeks together – making their way to the Temple in the city of Jerusalem.
The temptation for us, of course, is to romanticize this pilgrim journey. But these pilgrims were just like us. They were humans. They got tired. Their children would have gotten crabby. The old issues with in-laws would have surfaced. Some of the strangers would have been, well, strange. So this is the context of the psalm. These seething masses of every day human issues – both good and bad – is where the notion of “unity” becomes the saving grace. The “thing” that takes all of the differences and difficulties of humans living and working together, and transforms it in to something sacred and life affirming.
A congregation, a community of faith, is very much a gathering of pilgrims making a journey. We, like our ancient Jewish ancestors, are traveling together as we seek to be in an ever deepening relationship with God – as we seek transformation of self and world. And just like them, we are humans with unique gifts and quirks. And also just like them, we have to find a way to live with one another – not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences, as we make the journey.
Over the past couple of months we have been exploring the different theological streams that are present in the Christian church. We here, are a living example of those streams – we are a people made up of individuals who experience God best through one of the streams – but let’s be honest – when we gather all five steams are alive and well and present.
We have evangelicals, who experience God through the saving love of Jesus and the death on the cross. We have ecclesial folk, who experience God best through traditional worship styles and creeds and sermons. We have missional people who see that true worship is not on a Sunday, but in how we help those who have nothing. We have ecumenical people who see social justice as the divine work in which we are called to take part in so that God’s justice and peace might become our justice and peace. And we have spiritual people – who experience God in everything and are actively seeking that human and holy interface – so that the world might unfold in good and right ways.
On the surface, there is none in this room that would say this is anything but a good thing! And it is a good thing. But it is not an easy thing. Because like those ancient pilgrims, after a few days on the road, we tend to bump into one another’s differences and humanness. When this happens its very tempting to seek conformity instead of unity. That is, to insist that everybody do things one, and only one, way.
The Galatians reading, where we heard those beautiful words that with Christ “there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, woman nor man, slave nor free” is a reminder of how our differences can be embraced, even as we seek to be in unity with one another. But the fact that the apostle Paul had to keep reminding people of these words, shows how hard it is to live in unity and not fall back on conformity. These early Christian communities were radical – they brought together people who had for centuries – been separated. Perhaps even enemies. People were not expected to forget their uniqueness, or previous experiences of God – but they were expected to learn from one another. They were expected to be a community of equals – with no one group exerting control over another.
Lovely ideal! So very hard to realize though. As Janet Gear (the author of the theological streams work) said in her presentation to the Conference meeting – “we in the church tend to respond to those in the other streams, not with open interest – but with shock, disbelief, and sometimes even horror.” We can be repulsed by one of the other streams, because it is so different than our own. Ours “feels” right- so theirs “feels” really wrong.
So to make ourselves feel better, to make our communities more “peaceful” we seek conformity. While one group may dominate a way a faith community will worship and work – everybody else has to deny, or push down, their faith and their experience of God. It’s a classic case of “going along to get along.” This is pretty common in the Christian church, and when this happens, faith communities become a lukewarm place of faith – a status quo place of faith – but they will never become a place where the Holy Spirit can work. It is not a place of transformation of self and world, because the people have lost the passion they once had for the faith that is in them. They have learned to expect less from their faith community, and sometimes learned to expect less from God.
What scripture teaches us, and Janet Gear has reminded us through her work, is that if we want Pentecostal fire in our communities, if we want the kind of transformation that Christ and Spirit call us to – if we want self and world made new – then we do not deny our differences – instead we actively seek them out and explore them. That when we do – we are giving the Spirit room to work – and there is life in that! Unity becomes then, real, and a saving grace.
I try, sometimes more successfully than others, to have a blended worship service. That through the songs we sing, how I write the prayers, craft the sermon, and lay out the liturgy, people from every theological stream may feel their faith reflected in what we do when we gather together. That while the whole service may not be exactly according to one or another’s taste or preference – there will be at least something that people can take hold of and have nourish their spirit. Yet perhaps this isn’t the best way of doing things. Or rather, perhaps this shouldn’t be the only way.
There is a meme on the internet that shows a church sign that reads: “We offer a blended service. We guarantee nobody will be happy.” This always makes me laugh. But it also has some wisdom in it for me too. It makes me ask good questions. Questions like: What are we expecting when we come in to this place on a Sunday morning? Are we expecting to meet God, the Spirit that works through each unique person? Are we expecting transformation? Or are we expecting to worship in one precious way, having our own understanding of God affirmed, at the expense of others? How have I, or this community, drifted into one of the theological stream’s shadow sides? Are we about conformity, or community?
The grace of unity demands that we give one another theological room, so that those deep, deep places of faith that each one of us carries within us, might be nurtured and nourished and given wings. This is what being a part of a faith community is all about. You see, when we really listen to one another, and when our community reflects those differences, in worship and in work, in study and in play, the Spirit is unleashed.
And with the Spirit unleashed, unlike those people in the video clip who simply stood because others were standing, we will know why it is we stand when the bell rings. We will know that we stand as a community that knows God in a thousand different ways – and that in this place that is viewed as life giving. May it be so in your life and in mine. Amen,