Text: Exodus 17: 7; Philippians 2: 2; Matthew 21: 28-31a
When we as a nation name ourselves: the “United States of America,” and as a Christian congregation announce that we belong to the “United Church of Christ,” we all know we need to add a suffix to the word “United” that corrects both titles to read: the “Dis-united States of America” and the “Dis-united Church of Christ.” Our nation is “disunited” by politics, race, economics, and gender, and these same issues are “disuniting” Christian congregations, including the ones called the “United Church of Christ.” But our lawn sign announces this congregation is “A Place of Worship for All Christians” with the “all” in 1854 being a welcome to Christians no matter when or how they were baptized, (which was a reason to denounce each other, with one assigning the other to hell’s fire.) A decade later it was our nation’s Civil War that torn churches as well states apart, enlarging the “all” on our sign to cover Unionists, Confederates, and pacifists. As the recent TV series on the Vietnam War vividly and painfully made real to us, in the 1960’s and 70’s this congregation had to work at expanding the word “all” to take in Hawks and Peaceniks. Now there are more forces and causes to disunite us as a nation and as a church and challenge us to further refine and broaden our use of the word “all.”
This Sunday closest to Oct. 5, 1855, marks the day that legally constituted this congregation to be the “Christian Meeting House at Freeland” (as this place was called at that time). And, at month’s end there will be the once-in-our lifetime event, when we will celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and re-live what some did to restore the church to being under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and “put on Christ.” A celebration that is meant to be carried forward as an ongoing movement.
During the summer some youth from around the world pledged to take the Reformation into the next 500 years!
This anniversary month for our congregation and this phenomenal anniversary of a half-century movement, begins with Sunday’s Scripture that brings us back to our human flaw to be disunited. We hear those wilderness wanderers Moses was charged by God to forge into a great nation and be a light to the world that would draw all people to God, testing God’s patience with their,“Is the Lord among us or is he against us?" And today’s Gospel story pictures two sons, one refusing to be cooperative, but then changing his mind; while the other says, “Yes,” but never acts on his pledge.
Add to that, today is “World Communion Sunday” …more depressing evidence of how disunited Christians are! “Communing, yes, but NOT together; communing at separate tables, with some, like the sons in the Gospel, refusing but coming around to communing with other Christians; while others say “yes” but absent themselves with “not now!” It seems to be a trait inherited from the first Christians who prompted the greatest missionary, Paul, to write letters, with the one we read today send to his favorite congregation in Philippi, who filled him with joy every time he thought about them from his prison cell. Yet, there must have been some disunity among them, some behavior that Eugene Peterson personalizes in “The Message” which has us reading Paul’s letter in 21st century English: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life…if you have a heart, if you care, then do me a
favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends…Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (The Message) And then Paul says how it is possible to live that kind of life: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” The challenge read at the beginning of this double anniversary month when a new Confirmation Class is formed, and when confirmed on Palm Sunday, will be asked to say “yes” to: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In these disuniting times, when labeling words like: Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Socialist, Independent; American citizen, undocumented immigrant, straight, LGBT, handicapped, looked-down-upon races and nations, rightwing. leftwing political and religious groups, can blow us apart, we have an inherited claim to be: “A Place of Worship for All Christians.” which now challenges us to expand the word “all” to embrace all whom God has made to live under the umbrella of God’s accepting love. And, in Paul’s words, we have the counsel to do it: to let the some mind that was in Christ be in us, and know as we do, it will be an ongoing struggle, an ongoing re-formation that will have us confessing, “Almost but not quite!”
When others are leaving or never coming into a Christian congregation because it is so disunited, Debie Thomas sent an article to the Christian Century magazine (July 5, 2017) titled “Talking with my God – Why I stay” - understood to be “stay in the church.” Because rarely-too rarely – my hunger for you intensifies to the breaking point of communion. …I know you then in the liturgy, in the Word, in the broken bread and (passed cup). Because you suffered, and only a suffering God can help. Because you spoke of joy and I need to learn how to laugh. Because I am wired to seek you..., and my ache for you is the heart of my aliveness. Because I am your stubborn child, and I insist on resurrection.
Might Debi Thomas’ reasons to stay be our reasons to work to stretch the “all” in our lawn sign’s claim to match Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross to take ALL into His embrace, and when coming to His Table, might we let the un-united-ness around us and within us be overcome by the Christ within us, so that we confess, “Almost but not quite.” ?
As we work to enlarge “all” to the dimension of God’s grace, we take bread and cup to nourish us into having the same mind that was in Christ. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA