June 25, 2023 ~ 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Beckie Sweet
Bishop Will Willimon loves to tell the story of his introduction to his first pastoral appointment.[i] He was a student at Emory University at the time. And as instructed by the district superintendent, he drove out to the church on a Saturday to meet the lay leader. They were to meet at a little one room church, then named, “Friendship Methodist Church”, which, he goes on to state, was a misnomer if there had ever been one!
Will says, “I got there before my host, so I thought I’d go in the church and look around. But I was surprised by a big padlock and chain barring the front door. When the lay leader arrived, I said, ‘Glad you are here to open the lock on the door.’
“’Oh, that ain’t our lock. The sheriff put that there,’ explained the lay leader. ‘Things got rough here at the meeting last month. Folks started yelling at one another, carting off furniture they had given to the church. So, I called the sheriff, and he came out here and put that lock on the door until the new preacher could get here and settle ‘em down.’”
We live in an age of deep divisions and polarization ~ yes, another understatement! Whether one is speaking of the world, our nation, our community, our United Methodist denomination, our neighboring denominations, and even some local congregations, there are disagreements, questions of loyalty, and parting of the ways, that make us all look anything but unified. But friends, wallowing in DISunity is destructive to the cause of Christ Jesus. And, as the saying goes, “a house that is divided will fall.” (I know, you are all expecting to start singing, “United we stand, divided we fall!” We’ll save the Sonny & Cher act for another day!)
So, I have a question for you. Why do you go to church? That’s a question with a lot of possible right answers! We worship God TOGETHER. We learn TOGETHER. We have conversations TOGETHER. We serve others TOGETHER. We seek justice TOGETHER. Do you sense a theme here? God created us to be in community. It is important to each of us to have a personal relationship with God, AND, we find that relationship growing most effectively when we pursue that growth TOGETHER. As we are reminded in both the old and new testaments, what we do TOGETHER, in unity, gives God great delight.
During the opening worship service at this year’s Annual Conference, Bishop Hector Burgos Nunez reminded us that there is a lot of safe space for diversity when we are together because we are unified in our commitment to Christ. In fact, the diversity makes our unity more rich and beautiful! Unity does not signify uniformity. Unity is most strong and effective when the unique skills, gifts, and passions of each person are used harmoniously for the greater good of all.
Bishop Burgos employED the metaphor of a soccer team to make his point. You see, his son, Joel plays soccer professionally in Belize. But Bishop Burgos remembers a situation in Joel’s younger days when the soccer coach told the players, “Kids, we will do well in the game if we play it TOGETHER. The only way to excel is if we go out to the field as ONE and leverage the skills each of you brings to the game…there is no space for lone rangers or superstars in this team – we are one, each with a different role, but all important and playing for the same outcome.”
Friends, we are members of God’s team, each with a different, and important role, as we endeavor to be the body of Christ in the world. You may remember that the apostle, Paul, used three whole chapters in the first letter to the Corinthians to address divisions which had polarized the young church and diminished their witness for Christ. He used the metaphor of the human body, with so many unique parts, each needing to function well and hold the others in an attitude of honor and respect in order for the body to be healthy. It is only a healthy body of believers that will offer an effective witness of Christ’s love for the world. We have fingers, eyes, kidneys, kneecaps, tongues, skin, elbows, and the list goes on and on. The purpose for which each member was designed in the functioning of the body is to cooperate in achieving God’s loving abundance and healthy existence for the soul housed therein.
And then in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, he states,
“I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Paul was trying in his own way to help these new believers to become a healthy church family that would not only attract and influence more, new believers, but would also have a positive impact on their communities by representing the love, mercy, inclusivity, and teachings of Jesus Christ. Because, you see, Christian unity starts within and works outward, much like what we see in the growth and blossoming of a flower.
An article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly[ii] quite a few years ago reporting about superstar tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavorotti performing together in Los Angeles. The reporter conducting the interview for the magazine pressed the issue of competitiveness between the singers. In response, Domingo said, “You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music. You can’t be rivals when you’re together making music.” Isn’t that the way it should be in the church as well. When we are focused on together serving a Savior who would die for us, our competitiveness should melt away, and it will be clear that we are sharing the Blessedness of Unity in Christ. Amen.
As Nan C. Merrill paraphrases today’s scripture text:
Behold how good and pleasant it is when siblings dwell in unity!
It is like vistas seen from atop a mountain one has climbed . . .
Or like the stillness of a sunset after a long day’s work.
It is like a shimmering rainbow, breaking through a summer rain.
When [people] dwell together in harmony, the Star of Truth appears!
[i] Willimon, Rev. Dr. William H., Day 1, “One in Christ,” http://day1.org7975-will_willimon_one_in_christ
[ii] Atlantic Monthly, November 1994.