One, though many, we gather today. One congregation, one community, one people under God. Brothers and sisters in Christ. One, though many. We gather with many different perspectives and experiences of the world, of politics, of religion, of the Church (both capital and lowercase “c”). But, we will, you will, this morning, receive a common message, a common Word, we pray a common faith and hope. Scripture and sermon, the bread of the service, the heart of the service, left to be received and dissected through the unique lens that each of you brings. And, we will receive a common grace, a sacramental grace, an elemental grace. We have at the font in the water, we will at the Table in the bread and in the cup. Water and grain and grape. We are united at the most elemental, fundamental, basic human level. Young or old, rich or poor, republican or democrat, pacifist or realist, we share the need for nourishment of the body and care for the soul. Here we discover the simplicity of our seemingly complex life in water, grain, and grape.
Our congregation belongs to a brand of Christian history, theology and practice that holds only these two events in the life of an individual and in the life of the church to be sacramental rituals representing an outward and visible sign of inward, spiritual, divine grace. In water, grain and grape we behold the mystery that is our most common denominator. Our basic need for water and bread, our basic need for grace to save and to provide and to give, and for a perfect love to form and inform and transform our hearts.
We gather, as one though many, to receive an elemental grace at the tail end of a week wrought with international strife, political friction and division. We come up for air this morning in the midst of a wilderness of political upheaval, torn between the ways of diplomacy and direct retaliation against the Syrian regime, but united in our defense of human life, united in our condemnation of weapons that vastly override regard for human life. Many, though one, we weep, along with Jesus for our Syrian sisters and brothers whose bodies and souls felt the doings of such evil. Many, though one, we weep, along with Jesus for yet another country at war with itself. As Christians, we are caught in between loving our enemies and demanding an eye for an eye.
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Much has changed, we know, since the days when Joseph followed the star, since the days when Jesus called to Simon and Peter from the lakeside, since the days when Mary sat at Jesus’ feet or since the days when Paul calmly penned notes from prison, as if he were vacationing on the coast and writing to those who were experiencing far colder weather back home. Language and dress and money and politics and culture distance us from those days and times. Even in our lifetime, such differences can create distance among us across generations – are we all on Facebook? Do we all text and Tweet and Twerk?
And yet, there are moments in our life and relationships, and in the history of time when we realize that at our core, we are guided by the same fundamental need to be loved with a love that will not let us go.
One of those notes that Paul wrote so long ago from prison was addressed to his dear friend Philemon, a wealthy man who is master of a house large enough to accommodate a church. In the briefest and most human of Paul’s letters, he takes up his pen, once again, to part a sea of troubles. He writes Philemon to inform him that his slave, Onesimus who had escaped from Philemon’s property and absconded with his money, had come to Paul in prison and asked to be forgiven for his mistakes and relieved of his debt. Now, in those days and times, Philemon would have had the legal right to punish Onesimus for running away and for stealing from him. He would have most likely ended up in prison. And yet, Paul asks Philemon not to punish him. He asks him not to fall back on the reigning patterns of domination, discrimination, and violence that prevailed in those days.
And Paul, given his status as the leader of the early Christian movement, would have had enough power to persuade Philemon by force or domination to do what he wanted him to do, to let Onesimus go unpunished. But he does not. He doesn’t threaten, intimidate, or bully to get what he wants and what he sees fit according to the gospel. Rather, Paul appeals to his friend, on the basis of love.
Writing, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love” (Phil 8-9).
Not power or authority or coercion, but love, a teaching of Paul’s and Jesus that is so radical that the church and the world have yet to pay any attention. We routinely regard structures of power and domination as normal and we worry about matters of authority as though God does. But the gospel is rooted in a new way of relating to people, a way of openness, a way of love.
This week, as the news continued to unfold about the Syrian crisis, I was brought back to a period of months, nearly a decade ago now, that I spent living in Sri Lanka, a country that has been embroiled in a civil war for now going on 30 years, a war over religion, language and political representation for the Hindu and Muslim minority in a predominately Buddhist country. As a student studying there at the University, our travel was restricted and so my ability to explore this small island, limited. No travel to Tamil Nadu, the northernmost point where the flat, barren desert, I’m told, fades into the most beautiful crystal clear blue-green ocean, and where the Tamil Tigers, guerilla fighters had planted UXBs, or buried bombs there on the beaches. Reminiscent of the West Bank, this is the area the Tamils would like to separate from the country of Sri Lanka and make their own. No travel to the southeast cost, where, I’m told the greenest, lushes rainforest suddenly stops and gives way to the openness of white sand leading into the Bay of Bengal. No travel to Columbo, the capital city, the most dangerous of all because of its political symbolism and proximity to Parliament.
The latter half of my stay I spent at an all girls Christian orphanage in the central highlands of the country, an area more remote and less vulnerable to UXBs and random car and suicide bombings. With civil war and frequent violence erupting just miles away, there was a haven there in the hills of the country. In a country where peace was volatile and hate seemingly louder than love, the girls and young women at the orphanage created a different lexicon for relating to one another. There were, among them, Singhalese and Tamils. One, though many. They lived at the most basic level of human need, having no parents or resources, they lived by water and bread (rice in their case) and they lived by love, appealing to one another with compassion and understanding, and in return, found their most basic needs met, to eat and to love and be loved by a love that will not let them go. Elemental grace.
Some things, we know, override the value of human life: religious extremism, tyranny, oppression and domination. Fatalism. Powers of evil can thwart our desire to do good, but they cannot shake God’s desire to do good for us. If we, on an individual, day to day level, are brave enough to appeal to one another in love and not domination, in our homes and places of work, in our friendships, and here in the church, the effects would have the power to transform our world with a sense of justice informed by love.
So, we look at the larger, macroscopic picture of human interaction and note the conflict and violence. We look at regimes and dictatorships and note the evil and violence, but this morning we look toward the font and table - water, grain and grape - and know that we’ve been witness to a light that outshines the darkness; that we’ve been touched by a love that will not let us go.
A light symbolized by the purity of water, anointed on the heads of the newly baptized, a blessing upon the young and hope-filled, sinless and pure among us.
A love that begets life and new life evident in Bart and Shelby this morning.
Brother and sister, we pray that you will walk together in the light of our faith, appealing to one another and all others in love. And that you may never forget that you are loved with a love that will not let you go. Hold to community, hold to prayer, hold to the cross, hold to the Word when challenges and uncertainties and fears arise. If you (or we) ever have question of where to begin in the many and overwhelming pages of Scripture, begin with the words of the 139th Psalm, read on the occasion of your baptism, a Word fit for all times and places, a word fit for each one of us this morning, all children of God, praying and singing of the love that will not let us go:
“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
That I know very well.”
~ Rev. Leanne S. Walt