Monday, January 21, 2013

That They May All Be One: Sermon, January 20, 2013

This sermon was preached for the Week of Prayer For Christian Unity. The 2013 worship service was written to reflect the work of the Student Christian Movement of India, and included testimony from a Dalit (or "untouchable") Christian woman in Orissa state who is a victim of persecution for her faith and status.

With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8, Common English Bible

On that same day, two disciples were traveling to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking to each other about everything that had happened. While they were discussing these things, Jesus himself arrived and joined them on their journey. They were prevented from recognizing him.

He said to them, "What are you talking about as you walk along?" They stopped, their faces downcast.

The one named Cleopas replied, "Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who is unaware of the things that have taken place there over the last few days?"

He said to them, "What things?"

They said to him, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth. Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet. But our chief priests and our leaders handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him. We had hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel. All these things happened three days ago. But there's more: Some women from our group have left us stunned. They went to the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came to us saying that they had even seen a vision of angels who told them he is alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found things just as the women said. They didn't see him."

Then Jesus said to them, "You foolish people! Your dull minds keep you from believing all that the prophets talked about. Wasn't it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then he interpreted for them the things written about himself in all the scriptures, starting with Moses and going through all the Prophets.

When they came to Emmaus, he acted as if he was going on ahead. But they urged him, saying, "Stay with us. It's nearly evening, and the day is almost over." So he went in to stay with them. After he took his seat at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, "Weren't our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?"

They got up right then and returned to Jerusalem. They found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying to each other, "The Lord really has risen! He appeared to Simon!" Then the two disciples described what had happened along the road and how Jesus was made known to them as he broke the bread.
Luke 24:13-35, Common English Bible

Giving all glory and honour to God.

A day or week dedicated to unity among Christians has been a dream of church leaders for about two centuries or so. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been marked continuously for the last 119 years, and is now held around the world between January 18 and 25 so that it covers the days between the feasts of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Today I want to tell you a little about what is happening with Christian unity here in our area. You know that we cooperate with the Newington Wesleyan Church on the Stormont County Fair service and Good Friday worship. Clergy in South Stormont meet a few times a year, we share information about our churches’ ministries and events, we organize worship services at Woodland Villa in Long Sault, and we have collaborated on the Alpha course, the introduction to Christianity. I meet with clergy and representatives of other churches in overseeing pastoral care at the Winchester and Cornwall hospitals. There is a Cornwall and Area Christian Council, with clergy from the city of Cornwall and surrounding counties meeting once a month. I’m the president. We support each other in our ministries and coordinate worship at seniors’ homes and prayers at Cornwall city council. Our January meeting was on the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, with worship led by my friend Monsignor Rejean Lebrun from Holy Cross Church in Cornwall.

Monsignor Lebrun talked about when this week was a big thing, 1965 when the first city-wide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service was held, and there was an opening service at St. Paul’s United Church and a closing service at St. Columban’s Roman Catholic Church, and both were packed full of people. There seemed to be a real momentum then, as the Roman Catholic Church became much more open to dialogue with Protestants. This momentum picked up steam with what was called the liturgical movement as churches went back to ancient traditions of worship and their worship practices became much more similar. That’s when our United Church began using the liturgical calendar with seasons of the church year like Advent and Epiphany that we hadn’t observed in the past, and many United Church congregations began reading Scripture in worship from the common lectionary, a cycle of readings shared with other denominations. If you look back at United Church worship resources from the 1960s and 70s, there were a lot of materials for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And if you look in the front of the red hymn book, the one that came out in 1971, you see that this was the joint hymn book of the United Church of Canada and the Anglican Church of Canada.

It looked then as if the two churches might merge. Real Christian unity, churches coming together to form a greater union, seemed to be imminent. American denominations were merging. The Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches had joined in the United Church in 1925, and the Evangelical United Brethren came in 1968. Talks with the Anglican Church had produced the red hymnal for use by both churches, and a framework to merge the two denominations.

But then the United and Anglican churches couldn’t come to a final agreement. And today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is probably only being observed in a few churches in this area. I think since those days our idea of unity has changed. The 1960s and 70s were all about big programs, big projects, big institutions, in government and business and the church. Now we know that bigger isn’t necessarily better. These days we don’t have unlimited money and time and effort, so in the church we have, I think, turned away from merging denominations together into bigger denominations, and chosen to cooperate in a limited number of areas where we can make a real impact and build God’s realm of peace and justice, while preserving our diversity of belief and practice. We would rather have God’s people working together to be salt and light for the world than try to get everyone worshipping the same way and organizing their churches in the same manner.

So our money and time and effort are going at the national level into coalitions of churches: like the Canadian Foodgrains Bank that we are familiar with in the Seaway Valley as there are local farmers that participate in supplying crops and knowledge; like Kairos Canada which supports justice work; like Project Ploughshares that does research on issues of military spending and arms exports; like Action for Churches Together that provides assistance when disasters strike. Rather than maintain our own, costly, in-house distribution of books and materials, we now use the same centre as the Lutheran and Anglican churches.

I can tell you, because I am one of the people involved, that the United Church of Canada is beginning negotiations with other denominations on mutual recognition of clergy, which means that we will cut out a lot of the red tape involved in admitting a minister from another denomination into our church and the other way around. We’re trying to make it easier for clergy from, for example, the American Methodist or Presbyterian churches, or the Korean Presbyterian church or the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, to serve Canadian churches, and for our ministers to serve outside our denomination.

We also have a mutual agreement among Canadian denominations to recognize each other’s baptisms, so that if you were baptized here and want to marry in a Roman Catholic church, for instance, you won’t have to be baptized again. Unfortunately, we don’t have an agreement on Communion. Our reading today was about recognizing Jesus in the breaking of bread, but Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox Christians aren’t able to do that together in the Lord’s Supper. If we go to a Catholic or Orthodox church we can’t take Communion, because of different understandings of the sacrament.

So that’s nationally. In our Presbytery I began, when I was chair, to foster a partnership with the United Church of Christ across the border in New York State. They were formed during the big wave of denominational mergers, like we were, and were originally Congregationalist, and that’s one of our traditions too. Originally it was just to have a joint observance of 200 years since the War of 1812, with the two churches witnessing to the peace that we profess as followers of Jesus. Now it’s expanded to attending each other’s meetings and sharing ideas on how we can do Christian education and stewardship and justice work.

And I’ve talked about what we do on the local level. One of the things we have focused on in the Cornwall and Area Christian Council is reminding each other, and the people in our churches, about fellow Christians around the world who suffer persecution for their faith in Jesus, and trying to stand with them. There was an ecumenical worship service last year in Cornwall for the persecuted church, and we try to set a date each year for prayers for Christians suffering for their faith. This year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service has reminded us, in the testimony of Sarah that we just heard, about this persecution, and how it is taking place even in India, the world’s largest democracy.

Many of us probably think of India as a predominantly Hindu country, and it is. It also has nearly 32 million Christians, although they are a tiny minority in a country as big as India – just three percent of the population. There have been Christians in India since the days of the early church, with the message of Jesus supposed to have been brought by the Apostle Thomas.

The main Indian churches, other than the Roman Catholic Church, are unions just like our United Church, bringing together Anglicans and other Protestants in the Church of North India and the Church of South India. And many Indian Christians are Dalits, untouchables. The word “Dalit” means “crushed” or “suppressed,” and that’s what the untouchables have been in the Indian social system, regarded as so low that even their shadow can pollute a person of a higher social class or caste. Many Dalits have been attracted to the Good News of Jesus, who reached out to marginalized people. But even in the church Dalits may face segregated congregations, cemeteries, and worship services, although discrimination against Dalits is officially illegal in India.

And, as we heard in the story of Sarah, there have been cases of persecution of Indian Christians, and especially Dalits. The story we heard was from Orissa state, where there has been a wave of persecution; I was just reading a report from another state, Maharashtra, where a mob surrounded and beat Christians at worship two weeks ago.

Sisters and brothers, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and at all times we are praying for and working for the day when all may be one. That is what Jesus prays for his followers, that they may all be one, and that is in fact the motto of The United Church of Canada and the Church of South India. The stories of our fellow believers suffering for their faith remind us of how fortunate we are in the freedom of worship we enjoy, and that we are striving that all may be one in faith and purpose, not just in Canadian churches, but united with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. When Jesus prayed that we may all be one, he wasn’t asking that we have the same beliefs and practices, but that we be one family. Every member of a family may not think and act the same way, but they are on the same journey.

The prophet Micah asks, what does God require of us? To seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. We have a long way to go, but we are on that walk of Christian unity together.

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