So, today is the Sunday which falls on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a celebration held each year by the World Council of Churches. The council first met in Amsterdam in 1948. It was like the United Nations only from a Christian standpoint; in the wake of the two world wars it was felt maybe we should learn to work together more. So now it has some 349 churches, denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories throughout the world, representing over 560 million Christians.
Now all that being said, if you look in your bulletin you will see that there are some 41,000 different branches of Christianity while only 349 belong to the World Council of churches; there are about 2 billion Christians in the world and the WCC represents some 560 million… What I am getting at is that ¼ of all Christians can reasonably work together on most things; while ¾ probably cannot.
So, when we talk about Unity, we are talking about it from a place of division… and I want us to think about that.
Each and every week we come to church and talk about the good things of the world, we talk about love and peace, and hope, and working together… and I really believe that those are the things God wants us to be focusing on… but in the midst of that we also have to be realistic. Most of us live in a world where we have a few close friends, where we know a few other people, and then there are a whole lot of people out there that we know nothing about, or don’t want to know, or whatever…
How do we get from where we are to a place where we are working together more? And should we?
Welcome – we are trying to see things differently during this time of Epiphany… and I want us to see the doors of this church differently… what do you notice about the doors? Why do we have doors? What would make them more welcoming?
A Prophet in His Hometown
I went to junior high school and high school while living in a place called Hampton, New Brunswick; you may have heard of it. Because my parents were divorced I moved in and out, living also in Calgary and Halifax during that time. I was always an outsider in Hampton, even though I was, sort of, from there. My Dad had moved there when I was in grade four and I had went to grade four and five there… in grade 8 when I returned I rekindled some old friends… sort of…
Anyway, I was both from there and an outsider… I got into a lot of trouble, and at the time it was a town of 1500 people and I spent the other weeks of my year in Halifax, the roughest toughest town in these here parts…
All this to say I really did relate to this Jesus story, and I get what Jesus is trying to say… the people that know us to be one way are often the people who find it very hard to see that we have changed. We also have a lot of pre-conceived notions about people, we make assumptions and we judge – based on looks, based on money, based on the way they talk… just about anything really.
I wonder if the reason for so much division in the world is really that simple, that we see people as being different than us, and so we do not think of them as the same. Jesus for sure, was a carpenter from a small town, a Galilean, and when he came back to church to try and preach they thought of him as an outsider, as someone who had changed, and besides which, who did he think he was, talking to them that way…
Yeah, the story makes a lot of sense to me… not that it is right, but it does tell us a lot about human nature.
The Heart of the Matter
So if it is simple to find what divides us. And I know I am oversimplifying, but often it is that simple, and dumb… I wonder if it is as simple to figure out what we have in common? After all, even if we know that everyone on the planet thinks and acts differently than I do, there still must be something that connects us, right?
Paul thinks that something is love. Paul thinks if we understood love completely, and from a divine point of view, that we would see the way God sees.
And he has a point, there is nothing in this passage we could argue with, love should be patient, and kind, and calm, and open, and all the things that he says… we know that. And when you look at what he is talking about from the other side, we know that those are our bad qualities too… the impatience, the rudeness, the self-centeredness, the meanness…
But beyond that, when we get to look at it from a religious point of view – there are none of us, in any church, who are going to argue that love each other is not a central point for our faith. If you are Catholic, or Pentecostal, if you are traditional or liberal… love is at the centre of what we believe God and Jesus were on about all this time.
I do, truly, wish it was that simple… but perhaps it can be. Perhaps all we need is a little shift in our thinking and to put one simple principle into place… and then we can start to be different.
I talked about welcome in our children’s story today, because I think that the most practical way we love is through hospitality… how we treat people who come to our homes, how we make them feel welcome, what sort of effort we put into making other people feel comfortable. I really think that this is a practice of loving our neighbours the way that Jesus wanted us to.
Think about the story of the good Samaritan… here is exactly how and why the story is told – a man comes to Jesus and says, what is the most important religious principle; and Jesus says, love your neighbour. So the man says, but who is my neighbour… And Jesus picks the worst possible social outcast, a Samaritan – and tells a story in which the Samaritan goes out of his way to take care of a stranger…. That, in essence, is being religious… that is being Christian… that is the one thing that might reverse all of our turning away from each other.
The Sense of a Goose
In all of this what we are talking about is trying to be more like a goose.
Ok, that might seem like a little bit of a tangent, but consider this… In the Spring, when you see geese heading North for the Summer or South in the Fall, flying along in "V" formation, you might be interested in knowing what scientists have discovered about why they fly that way. It has been learned that as each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following.
By flying in "V” formation, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.
How about this, whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird immediately in front. When the lead goose gets tired, he rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point.
And do you know why the Geese are always honking, to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
Finally, when a goose gets sick, or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out, two geese fall out of formation and follow him down to help and protect him. They stay with him until he is either able to fly or until he is dead, and then they launch out on their own or with another formation until they catch up with their group.
Now, all of this is the way that a group of people, or birds, would act if they all had the same goal, if they all cared about each other, and if they all worked together… People who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier because they are helping each other as they go along. It also pays to take turns doing hard jobs, with people or with flying geese. Finally, we will stand by each other, encourage one another, protect one another and sometimes make new friends who seem to be going in our direction.
If we put this in religious terms I am pretty sure we are saying what Micah was saying… God is love, and so we are required to do justice, or loving works to help each other, we are required to love kindness, or to take care of one another and be nice to one another; and finally, to walk humbly… which in the end, means to think of the other person as being just as important as you.
It is not so much an epiphany this week as a pointing out things we already know, instinctively, deep down… but it is good to be reminded.
The person who is on welfare, the rich guy in another country, the Presbyterian down the road…we really do have more in common with them than we think.
And as much as we fight against it the way forward is clear, it is to love everyone.
So I am going to celebrate the week of prayer for Christian Unity by trying, at least as much as I can, to take these lessons to heart, to try not to focus on the things that divide but the things that unite. I hope you can too.