“United in…” Reverend Tony Romaine
Elizabeth Coatsworth in Five Bushel Farm wrote this poem:
“The warm of heart shall never lack a fire
However far he roam
Although he live forever among strangers
He cannot lack a home
For strangers are not strangers to his spirit,
And each house seems his own,
And by the fire of his loving-kindness
He cannot sit alone”
We are a people who are walking in darkness. We go about our days and wander about the world consuming and consuming, siloing ourselves off into ever deeper division and fear. We are in the darkness because we choose to follow those that seek to divide us, those that seek to keep us afraid and those who, because they look like us, sounds like us, or tell us what we want to hear, are those who we think we agree with.
We divide ourselves along party lines, we say we are Republican or Democrat. We divide ourselves along social lines; we say we are pro-life or pro-choice, we say we are for LGBTQi peoples or against LGBTQi peoples. We divide ourselves along denominational lines; we say we are UCC or UMC or Lutheran or Catholic or Presbyterian. We divide ourselves along national lines; we say we are American or Swedish or Norwegian or German or French or Italian. And in doing all this dividing, which we think is good for us because we need groups to reside in or peoples who are like-minded, we eventually become so broken that fixing the divide seems nearly impossible.
This morning, we hear Paul speaking to the church in Corinth about this very thing. Paul is writing to a church which is dividing itself based on their favorite preacher or evangelist. People are becoming followers of one person, they are choosing to follow one person and lift that person up as the best of the best, and anyone who disagrees with them are wrong. Does this remind anyone here of our current state of affairs in the United States?
But what Paul tells the church in Corinth is for our ears to hear loud and clear this day also. We are not baptized into being a Democrat or a Republican, we are not baptized into being a UCCer or Methodist, we are not baptized in the name of whomever baptized us. No, we are baptized in Christ, we are united in Christ, and anything else, any other descriptor, any other divisive language is not only not necessary, but seeks only to separate and do harm to the Christian unity.
As Rev. Mary Hinkle Shore states,
“When Paul urges “the same mind and the same purpose” in verse 10, Paul may sound like someone who is simply uncomfortable with conflict, but he has his sights on something greater than keeping the peace. The individual points of division in Corinth are merely a symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians do not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.”
I love that language, “upending” our ways of defining ourselves and others, “upending” how we value ourselves and others. Because in Christ all are welcome and all are valued. In this manner, we are united in Christ. Which means we are united in the life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. All too often we as Christians focus solely on the death and resurrection piece of what Christ promises. The greatest gift given was the forgiveness of our sins and the salvation of our souls; no doubt about it! But what about the life that Christ calls us to? What kind of life is Christ calling us to live as we walk about the Earth?
This is the part where we are supposed to be united in what Christ has taught us, but this is all too often the part which divides us the most. As we seek to define the ways in which Christ taught us to live our lives, we then purposefully, and maybe even innocently, begin to divide ourselves among the “in” and “out.” Who can have Communion, who can serve Communion, who can be baptized, who cannot be baptized, who can worship here, who is not welcome here, what songs are we supposed to sing, what words are we supposed to use, what types of people can sit in our seats, who can sit at our table, or use our tables and chairs, and the list of division goes on and on. Until we are a small group of like-minded individuals who have no counter voice to speak truth to the false narrative of factionalism.
This is not the life Christ is calling us to, and in many ways, thankfully not what our church, First United Church represents. We purposefully and diligently came together through difficult conversations and agreements and councils to form a United Church that is composed of United Methodists and UCCers. Which historically are two congregations which are composed of Methodists, United Brethren, Congregational, Christian, German Reformed, and German Evangelical churches. Which means that if you are keeping count as I have been, that our First United Church is composed not of two denominations, but more like six denominations. And if you also include all the individuals who are sitting amongst us who were once Catholic, Lutheran, non-Believer, or what have you, then this United Church is composed of not six, but eight or more disparate denominational histories.
But none of that matters if it divides us. None of our history matters if we use it to supplant ourselves over one another, none of what makes me me should make you any less of you, and none of our “Unitedness” matters if we are not truly United in Christ, united in Christ’s baptism, united in living a life with one another as Christians, united in Christ’s death and resurrection, and united in the belief that one day Christ will come again and wake us from our deep slumber to restore us to peace. United in the Christian belief that the color of skin, the amount of wealth, the status of being, the political beliefs, the social beliefs, the sicknesses or illnesses which hamper us, age or race or sex or whatever, is not stronger than the unity which Christ calls us to through our baptism that we are made one in Him.
Furthermore, the upending of our life when we repent and follow Jesus is that we become children of the light who are healed and saved through the one belief that Jesus can heal us, Jesus can unite us and Jesus can and did save us.
Listen again to part of our Gospel for today:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
Or perhaps, hear it this way: land of the United States, land of Minnesota, on the road by the river, across the Mississippi, First United Church of the Little Falls—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We once sat in a time of darkness, in a shadow region, but we repented and believed in the unity of Christ and the kingdom of heaven indeed is near.
We were sick and diseased, we thought division was the only way, we used to think lowly of our neighbor and separate ourselves because they were different. But then we realized, we are all sick, we are all weary, we are all in need of the healing that only Jesus can bring.
And so, we followed Jesus, and brought to him all our illnesses and hurts. We came and laid at his feet those afflicted with physical disease, those whose hearts were trapped by fear, those who had demons past or present, those who were so wracked by the fear of what might happen that they were paralyzed and could not love those worshipping alongside of them, those who could not see the God-spark in their neighbor, and so, were blind to Christ in each other, and Jesus cured us all. And in that day, the words of the prophet Isaiah came true:
For a people who once walked in darkness, saw a great light; a child was born for them, a son whose authority rests upon his shoulders and is named: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And because they were united in Christ, Jesus multiplied the nation and increased its joy; For the yoke of their burden, the burden of living the lie of divisiveness and the bar across their shoulders, the oppressive rod of fear, was broken.
“For the warm of heart shall never lack a fire…and we cannot sit alone!”
In the Tao Te Ching, the classic Chinese philosophical work of Lao Tzu, it has this to say about water, “Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong. This is because nothing can alter it. That the soft overcomes the hard and the gentle overcomes the aggressive is something that everybody knows, but none can do themselves.”
God has truly gifted us with an amazing thing when water was created out of the cosmos. Did you know that most of our water that was formed on earth, probably came from asteroids crashing into earth at a very formative time in our creation, roughly 3.8 billion years ago? And through time and formation, eventually broke down through geologic and chemical processes to become what we know as water today.
It’s amazing to even think about that 3.8 billion years is how much planning God had for our existence. And in terms of our human bodies, when we are born our bodies are roughly 90% water and by the time we are adults it only shrinks to about 60-65%. Now I know that you are probably thinking to yourselves that this journey into science is great, but what is the point here! The point is that water, beyond being an essential part of our world, and an essential part of our bodies, is an essential part of our spiritual existence as well. But we must explore all the states of water in order to fully understand all about God’s amazing waters.
Ice: When our hearts become solid and frozen, we become like ice. We become hard-hearted, we become cold to others, and we close ourselves off to the ebb and flow of human interaction. We also close off any ability within ourselves to allow other waters in, to allow for cleansing, and to allow for the natural flow of our humaneness, or moral attitude toward others. Yes, ice is important for cooling off, it is important for cooling drinks, it is important for Arctic transportation and exploration, it is important for the cooling of our planet and many more important things. However, iciness, as an eternal state, only leads to a cold-hearted reality where fracture is probable and death is certain.
Steam or Vapor: When we are so hot that we get to a boiling point and our waters evaporate into steam or vapor, then we destruct on another level; we disappear, we become unrecognizable, and we no longer can be seen or touched. When we get so angry with ourselves or our neighbors, when we do not allow for cooling off or calming down, when we can only spit vitriol and hate, when we heat up and heat up and heat up until our state is no longer recognizable…then we transform into the very thing we did not think would ever happen, we transform into something other, we evaporate out of a state of flexibility and malleability into a state where we are no longer in control. When we are vapor or steam, we are at the whim of others, at the whim of the wind, and we can be blown away by the slightest of breezes. Yes it is good to express emotion, yes it is good to get rid of waters that have turned bad, but vapor or steam burns others badly, it destroys and breaks down bonds, and can be lost forever to the winds of hate.
Water: When we are water in its liquid state we are flexible, malleable, life-giving, and patient. The greatest canyons and mountains have been carved by the tiniest of rivers, the smooth stones of the North Shore tell the story of patience and endurance. Water supports life, it gives life, and it is essential to life. Yes, waters can flood, we can have too much of it and it can be destructive; certainly, too much water can be life-threatening. And when we use too much water and we run out, too little water can also be life-threatening.
But, this is what water teaches us; balance. The balance that our lives must have and that we must work to not be overly set in one of our states. When our waters begin to cool, well then it is time to warm ourselves up and find that balance once more. When our waters begin to boil, then it is time to calm and cool and find that balance once again. When our waters turn stagnant and stale and begin to rot or fester, then it is time for us to open new channels of irrigation and find our flow once more. And when our rivers move too fast, churning our lives over rocks and boulders, then we need to find that soothing eddy to relax in once again.
And if you think that I am just overly stretching a metaphor and wrote this sermon because I love water and nature, while you are not necessarily too far off on all accounts, I do want to offer you this one question: why did God choose to baptize with water? Why are we not baptized with soft linen sheets? Why are we not baptized with sand or dirt? Why are we not baptized with strong wind?
We are baptized with water because we are cleansed in the process and renewed by God’s eternal and amazing Creation.
See there is a very important part to today’s sermon that I have been purposefully saving for last: Jesus came and was baptized in the water too! He did not have to be, Jesus was pure and blameless even before being baptized, we hear John proclaim that while he is baptizing people. But Jesus came, stepped into the waters, was baptized and God’s Spirit descended upon Him and blessed Him.
Why? Because like ice that is frozen and cold, God’s distance can sometimes feel like we are closed off to love. Like ice which is hard and frozen, God can sometimes seem indifferent to our existence and the pains and agonies we experience as human beings.
Because like vapor or steam or gas, God’s distance can be unrecognizable and unnerving. We are not always sure if God is there or here, if God can hear us, or if God even cares for us. Like gas, we can feel burned by the sinfulness of our world and the degradation of our bodies. And like vapor or steam or gas, God’s distance can seem like it comes and goes like the winds that blow.
But, when a baby was born into the hands of humans, when a child grew in exile and returned through the desert to be cleansed and baptized in the river Jordan, when Jesus humbled Himself and was baptized by John, all the cold was melted away, all the unknowable solidified, and Jesus washed in the eternal waters of God’s ever-flowing streams, became like water to us, knowable to us, flowing in and through our fingers, cleansing us with waters before unknown, and ultimately freeing us to flow into our God-given canals of life.
And in doing so, in that one moment, all who would be baptized in the name of Christ, became one in the water with Jesus. The water that brings life, the water that experiences death, the waters which are greater than all things, the waters which flow eternal.
Lao Tzu also says in the Tao, “The highest goodness is like water. Water easily benefits all things without struggle. Yet it abides in places that men hate.”
What better description of Jesus’ life as an element is there than water. Jesus who wanted the best for all people and did so without struggle. Jesus who came and taught us how to live our lives flexible and open to loving our neighbor, Jesus who went to the places that men of his day hated, sat with those who were hated, ate with those who were hated, forgiving those who were hated; like water which stretches out even into the most arid of places.
So may we remember, “Nothing in the world is softer than water, yet nothing is better at overcoming the hard and strong.” And may we forever be like God’s Amazing Waters, ever-flowing like Jesus, molding, moving, loving, Amen
The Gift of Light
I don’t know if any of you have ever been in a cave, or on a cave tour, but they are quite interesting. One particular cave I went on we entered into a room that was almost fully enclosed, and our cave guide told us this room was completely dark, meaning there was no light at all, and so when the lights were turned out, we got to experience complete, and I mean complete, darkness. Now, to scare us, our guide also told us that if we remained there too long, maybe for a few days, we would go completely blind. And while this is scientifically untrue, the complete darkness was suffocating, scary, and real…and while one’s eyes may not go blind, I definitely felt anxiety within me without light shining in.
How dark must our world get before we realize that we need to be the gift of light to one another? We live in a society that has spun so far out of control, that we can sling arrows across the world at each other and do so in the name of freedom.
How dark must our world get before we go completely blind? We demonize the innocent and the needy, we make it their fault they are homeless, we make it their fault they need help, and we turn a blind eye, pun intended, to their needs.
How dark must our world get before we no longer see the light? We fail to see the good in each other, we fail to be patient with one another, we fail at being Christian to one another, because we fail to love one another.
Jesus was and is the gift of light to our world and we use our history, our tradition, our faith to do everything opposite of what Jesus called and is calling us to do. But in order to fully demonstrate this, I want to tell us what the gift of light does or does not do:
Despite complete blindness from the cave I spoke of at the beginning being a myth that the guide used to make our experience a little scary; we have all experienced temporary blindness at some point or another. We have all had someone turn on a light in a dark room, or walked out of a movie theater into a bright day, or something similar that forces us to kind of put our hand up, blink profusely, be in a little pain, but then ultimately we get used to the light and adjust accordingly.
How fitting a metaphor for how God works in our life. Perhaps a little discomforting to know that love is the only answer, perhaps a bit painful to remember the sins of our past, perhaps forces us to put our hands up wondering what in the world we can do, and perhaps we blink profusely because the tears of knowledge that God’s love is enough for us and the world are streaming down our face.
And as such, I have saved the greatest part of the gift of Light for last: the Gift of Light heals. It takes broken people and makes them whole, it takes broken souls and renews them, it takes people who know not love and loves them, it takes a world torn apart and mends it back together and it takes you and I to do it, for we have seen Jesus in our lives, and that gift is meant to be shared. We no longer have to live in darkness, fear, doubt, or misery; for we know what it is like in the light and we get to choose. Our blindness is only temporary. It is when we choose the gift of Light that our eyes are opened and we see, Amen