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Unity in Diversity: A Case Study: Roman Catholic-Lutheran Christians, Philippians 2:1-13
October 5, 2017, 9:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Philippians 2:1-13  

read the Bible

Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.

Paul writes to the church at Philippi, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

“Be of the same mind, in full accord and of one mind.”

What is that? Certainly not the world we live in today.

In our home, we avoid the 24-hour news cycle. I take a deep breath before opening Facebook. I know not to bring up certain subjects around specific people.

As a whole American public, we are a people of division. Media amplifies the shouting of one side against another. We group together with our people- people who have the same experiences and opinions as us. By having our ideas always affirmed, we become even more sure that we’re right about everything. It’s us versus them. I’m right, you’re wrong. Fingers in my ears, I can’t hear you- when someone tries to challenge us.

When we read Paul’s encouragement to the early church, we discover that our situation today isn’t anything new. These very first converts, people who are hearing directly from those who actually met Jesus, full of the energy of the Spirit and zeal of new faith, even they struggle to be a unified community.

The early church was located at the crossroads of cultures. It was a place much like our nation today, where ideas from all over the world were shared along trade routes, people worshipped in many different ways and sought wisdom from varied philosophies, and class, gender, and citizenship divided people into drastically different lives.

The early church was an experiment in creating radically different community. It attempted unity in diversity. In faith it proclaimed that because of Jesus all are welcome- divisions are broken down. There is no more men here, women there, Greeks there, Jews here, slaves way over there, rich up close here. Christian community recognizes that we are all different, and yet the most powerful thing is that which holds us together: Jesus Christ, dying and rising to make us God’s own people.

Proclaiming community and living it are two very different things. The Church has struggled with unity for millennia.

At the end of October, we commemorate the Reformation. We mark October 31st as Reformation Day because 500 years ago, Martin Luther put forward 95 Theses, or points of debate, for religious scholars to explore. He hoped to see a renewal in his church, centered in returning to what is most central, Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for us. This movement was coopted. Reformation became a banner under which political powers sought to realign, and so what might have been a renewal movement was fanned into a schism- breaking the unified Western church into factions.

Reading what was written during that period, it’s pretty clear that the whole people of God were not “of the same mind.” They told lies about each other and exaggerated differences. They killed each other while believing they were doing God’s work. Over the centuries, the violence quieted down, but still divisions remain. Some of you here remember being taught that good Lutherans couldn’t befriend- and certainly should never marry- a Catholic.

What you may not have heard much about is what’s been going on in more recent years. The Church is moving towards living in to Paul’s vision of Christian community. I spent the beginning of last week learning about God’s work to draw together Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians towards greater unity after 500 years of division. The Lutheran-Catholic story is a case study from which we might learn to heal divisions in our own lives and communities.

How do people of different opinion and experience, caked with the mud slung by generations, come together towards community?

Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

Reconciliation starts with setting aside being right.

A way to understand the Reformation might be to say that Martin Luther was looking for a dialog partner and the Roman Catholic Church of his day wasn’t ready for a conversation. A conversation requires people to suspend their own need to be right and respect their dialog partner enough to believe they might have something to offer. It’s necessary to believe the other might possess some kernel of the truth. This openness helps us to listen to the experience of the other, to be curious as to how ideas came to be.

 

 

We look to Jesus to learn how to enter conversation and build community. Paul calls us to reflect the mind of Jesus. In order to be united with us, to bring us into his community, Jesus left his home, his place of glory, to come into our human experience. He so entered in to what it is to be us that he even experienced our suffering and death. He did everything to bridge the gap between Creator and created. He set aside all privilege in order to raise us up.

Maybe you’ve heard that you should walk a mile in another’s shoes before making judgements about their life?

Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of walking in someone else’s shoes. Jesus spent his life walking with and alongside those he was determined to know and love. Jesus came in order to know you and love you.

It wasn’t enough for God to know us from a distance. It wasn’t enough to know us from the perspective of creator, subject of worship, recipient of prayer. Through Jesus, God knows us from our perspective. Jesus had a family, grieved at a friend’s death, was confronted with his own prejudice, struggled to be faithful to God’s purpose, was betrayed, abandoned, and killed. It would have been more comfortable to stay distant, but God wants to be in community with us, so in love, God has done everything to know us.

We would do well to listen deeply enough to stand in another’s shoes- or at least next to them- and look around through their description, attempting to see the world as they see it, acknowledging that they might see and experience things differently than we do. In order to do that, we have to be willing to know that our assumptions might be wrong, we have to be open to being changed by that encounter.

Can you imagine the Church saying it was wrong? As an institution guarding the Truth- to be open to critique takes a lot.

Yet transformed by Jesus, the Church has been at work to discover the faithfulness in fellow Christians once declared heretics. Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians have been engaged in dialogue for the past 50 years. We have come to recognize each other as faithful Christians, people Jesus loves, feeds, and forgives. In 1990s, a joint theological document, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine Justification was signed and accepted by both churches. Recently, From Conflict to Communion and Declaration on the Way focus on our shared effort to remember the Reformation together, repent of the division, and give thanks for those things on which we have come to understand each other better.

In some cases, differences in words and practices clouded us from seeing that we both celebrate the same truth, and deep, respectful listening helped clear away the clouds so we could recognize Christ in each other. There are 32 statements of agreement, points on which there is no longer church-dividing disagreement. This work of reforming community was celebrated in a joint commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation last year. Catholics- including the Pope- and Lutherans worshipped side by side. At the same time, the relief and service organizations of each church, Lutheran World Federation World Service and Caritas Internationalis, declared that they would work together in a more coordinated effort, letting the needs of others break down their need for recognition of their own work, under their denominational brand name.

I give thanks that we have this example of working towards unity in the midst of so much division in our world.

One phrase from this work translates to all of our community restoring work: “The Holy Spirit bends the inflexible.” With God all things are possible- Catholics and Lutherans can worship together. We can be one congregation with many passions. Our neighborhood and city can be united around a common goal. Our nation can reclaim civility and grow in understanding.

Jesus humbled himself, sacrificed himself, for the sake of creating community. Where might Jesus be calling you to do the same? Is there a relationship you might be able to restore by saying those difficult words- “I was wrong?” Might there be an opportunity for you to set aside all your experiences that prove your opinion is correct and listen deeply enough to another to hear how their experiences have led them to their own opinions? Can you recognize something valid in another so that you can have real dialogue rather than calling each other names?

If we can be a church that’s about celebrating unity in the midst of diversity, we might have something the world would be interested in. If the gospel empowers us to care enough for others that we suspend our beliefs enough to honor them by listening- if knowing Jesus truly makes us people who love even those who aren’t just like us- we might just live into our dream of seeing this church grow.

Paul writes, “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” We can’t create unity on our own. Thankfully, God isn’t leaving it all up to us. God is at work in you- giving you the desire and the ability to do God’s work of community building and reconciliation.

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Sermon Sept 24 Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost Matthew 20:1-16
October 5, 2017, 9:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Read the Bible  Focus on: Matthew 20:1-16

 

Grace and peace to you siblings in Christ,

It’s a joy to be worshipping with you this morning. If you’ll indulge your new pastor, please have a peek at the back of your bulletin.

Who are the lucky people who have a star sticker on the back of the bulletin?

Which of you have green stars? Excellent. God loves you- God has a special meal of love prepared for you right here today a little bit later.

Red stars? Great. God loves you- you’re invited to join this meal, too.

Anyone have a gold star? You are the winner! God loves you- you have a very special spot right down here- you’ll be right next to everyone else in the congregation-

Because God loves all of you- and has prepared a place for each one of you at this meal.

You are each special and beloved and valued- but I’m sorry to say, those of you with stars aren’t really getting anything more than God is giving to everyone else.

 

God loves all people because of who God is. God is a loving God, a merciful God, a God who comes to earth as a person, Jesus, to share our life and death so that nothing we experience would be outside of God. God chooses to judge the worth of each person by swapping out that person’s action with Jesus’ and weighing Jesus’ worth instead. God gifts us with Jesus’ worthiness- so we are each worthy of love, not because of our own doing or not doing, but simply because God chooses to make us worthy.

That’s grace. God’s free gift. I’ve always celebrated that free-ness. Thank God- I don’t have to worry- I may have totally messed up- but God chooses to love this mess anyway.

It wasn’t until about eight years ago that I discovered how terrifying this grace is.

 

I was serving a Lutheran church in rural North Dakota. To serve our town of fewer than 200 people, we had two churches. Right next door to our church was the United Methodist Church. In an effort to strengthen partnerships between the churches, we accepted an invitation to participate in their Bible study.

We opened Ephesians and began reading that God freely chose us to be beloved and holy- before the world was even created. It was all God’s choice- God’s grace- to love us before we could do anything to earn that love. I started gushing about how beautiful the passage was- how amazing that God’s love is so wide-

Only to be interrupted by, “You’re scaring me!”

My jaw hung in surprise. What on earth would be scary about God’s love?

God’s love is out of our control.

When everything else in our world is about earning and deserving- when we have so many ways of judging if someone is good enough- it is terrifying to think that on the scale of the big cosmic judgement, we don’t have any weight to throw around. God has already measured out God’s mercy. It’s overflowing. God has made you and me more than enough.

That flies in the face of our sense of justice. It undermines our American dream of earning our way to the top. It doesn’t make sense. That’s the feeling we get from Jesus’ parable in our Gospel today:

The landowner goes out to hire workers throughout the day, agreeing with the earliest workers that they would receive the usual wage, and simply telling the others they’d receive what was right. He chooses to pay them backwards, starting with those who worked the least amount of time, but giving all of them the same amount- the standard daily wage. When they are all given the same amount, those who had worked all day complain and resent those who came lately, because even though they worked harder and longer, they received nothing more.

We all but hear the workers shouting- that’s not fair!

Jesus teaches this parable to show us something about the kingdom of God. When Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven- Jesus is talking about the reign of God right here and now. This parable is about how God’s vision of how life is supposed to work collides with our vision of how life is supposed to work.

Right here and now there are two competing realities: the kingdom of this world, in which merit and work and being in the right group all count for something; and the kingdom of heaven, in which God’s surprising generosity is the only thing that matters. The parable is about our reaction to God and an invitation to learn from that reaction so that we can more closely imitate God’s intentions for us.

We learn that we like to categorize people. We want to judge our worth by measuring up against each other. When God decides to destroy our meritocracy and simply love each person the same- totally and abundantly- it makes us mad! At the very least, it’s confusing.

We’re here at church to learn to live into this alternative reality- the kingdom of heaven. In word and song, sacrament and service, bread broken and plates shared, we live into the kind of community God intends, in which all people are welcomed and valued, their various stories and experiences honored, but never used as the basis for their worth. Church is meant to be a place of practicing the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not always so easy. Too often church has been a place we want to act just like the kingdom of this world.

I’ve seen it especially when I talk about confirmation class requirements. Elders tell me stories of their confirmation, when the pastor would grill them with questions in front of the whole congregation. They’d tell me it made them so nervous that they’d be sick the night before. As soon as I open my mouth to say- wow, what a horrible experience- I’m so glad we do things differently today- I’m cut off by them saying- we need to make kids today work harder. They need to suffer like we did. Prove their worth like we did.

Here in this place, we don’t have to prove our worth. God’s already determined it.

 

If the stickers some people received didn’t win them a prize, what good are they? If it doesn’t make you any more special, then maybe it’s worthless.

The Bible study interrupter was scandalized by grace because she heard it making all her sacrifices, service, and church participation worthless. Why had she given up all the fun she could have had? If God’s acceptance isn’t based on what we do- why be good? It made her feel a fool, doing things for nothing.

No. Grace is only a disappointment when we are trapped by the need to prove ourselves. Your stickers are pretty and they served a point- and if anyone wants their own sticker, I’ll have more after worship. The works of faith the woman did served the community and encouraged others, they may not have changed her worth, but they helped others recognize their own.

The fear behind all this scrambling for recognition of our work centers on the question: “how do we know we are valued?”

We know we are valued because we hear and trust God’s promises. God spoke creation into being and spoke its blessing: it is good. We hold God to the commitment God has made to love us- to claim us. As a worshipping community, we amplify God’s promises, helping each other hear God speaking love to us. God makes a place for each one of us at this table and God provides the meal for you. We hear and taste and feel God’s valuing each one of us- and we learn to trust God’s judgement over all else.

 

 

The more we live into the Kingdom of Heaven, with its strange lack of scales for measuring each person’s worth, the more it will become normal and the world’s scales strange. This sanctuary is a place where everyone is welcome and everyone is most especially loved. When you leave this place, you don’t leave the Kingdom of Heaven, you carry it with you.

As you go about your life this week, go about the work of freeing people from the burden of living up to standards of value. Help them to see that no matter what, God loves them. And when your life get hard, when you can’t do it all, when no prizes have been coming and the grades aren’t that great- remember that God loves you, too. You’ve been declared worthy and forgiven and a child of God- and even though you haven’t earned it, nothing’s going to take away this gift God has given to you. Thanks be to God.