“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!”