What Does It Mean to be One?

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on October 3, 2021

Ephesians 4:1-6 — I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Today is World Communion Sunday.  Just parenthetically, some of us remember when this day was called “World-wide Communion Sunday”, but today it’s World…   World Communion Sunday was begun by our Presbyterian cousins in the 1930s and began to be sponsored by the National Council of Churches in 1940.  The idea was to create a a day and experience which would be a visible sign of Christian unity by celebrating the sacrament of Communion together.  We continue that visible sign today in our celebration.

I think, however, that it’s worth our time to think together of just what that unity might mean in today’s world.  Back in the 1930s and 40s, unity was, as much as anything, about structural unity.  It’s the time when denominations were combining, when Evangelical & Reformed Church and Congregational Christian pastors in St. Louis first began to talk about bringing their constituent churches closer together; they dreamed that their union might bring forth the great reunion of all parts of the Christian Church.  

Well, it didn’t happen.  The whole big effort crashed and burned – among other reasons — on the rocks of different beliefs that were each important to parts of the whole, and often, offensive to other parts.  That might sound like failure.  I don’t think it is, though.  I think we had to go through that stage to get to where we are today.

Where we are today is in a place where unity is not about whether we belong to one particular church body or whether it’s even possible to all belong to the same denomination.  Unity, today, is about how we live together.  And in moving from the form of unity, we have come to the substance of unity.  It’s not about belonging to the same club, or the same local church, but about living in same ways, showing love, working for justice, acting with mercy.

Unity is the recognition that the goodness of our world is incomplete when we are not together.  Moreover, it is the recognition that we are called to make this good, unity, better… by working together, loving together, serving together… unity made manifest.

Let’s look again at our reading from Ephesians.  You know this is one of a number of letters written either by the Apostle Paul or by people who’d studied and worked with him.  You might have been surprised when you learned that this letter, written in Greek to Greek-speaking followers of Christ, went to a city in Turkey.  Back in Paul’s day, Ephesus was a big Christian center, a big trade center – and in those days, Greek was the language of the eastern end of the Mediterranean world. The city produced a number of early leaders of the Christian church, before wars and natural disasters left the city in ruins by the mid-600s.  But when this letter was written, it was a great city.

Now back in those days, the Christian Church was really pretty congregational in organization – at least in the sense that there was not yet an over-arching church organization which controlled all the local centers or local churches.  True, there was a Council in Jerusalem, but after the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of leaders, it became harder to get together.  Travel wasn’t easy, distances were really distances, not “gosh it’s a long drive to Hartford”, but more like, “ooh, we’re walking to Milwaukee…in the winter… and we have to go through Chicago at rush hour….”  

The first divisions in Christianity will emerge to some extent because of those distances, and because different people in different contexts will see the world in different ways.  Paul is trying, in this letter, to distill the meaning of Christianity into something that will be true wherever this word is read…. 

He gives us two statements, both of which describe unity.  The first tells us that the marks of a unified heart is living with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  

This kind of unity is not just about church structures; it’s about all our relationships – in our homes, at work, here in this church, in the work we do with other believers, in our relationships throughout the world.    When you get right down to it, a Christian faith that only shows itself inside this building is not much of a faith at all, and I don’t think it’s at all what God wants from us.

Unity is not an in-thing, not something just for us.  It is our gift to the world.  It is our work as Christians to live with humility and gentleness, patience, love and an enduring persistent unity… even when it doesn’t work, even when we lose our tempers, even when we turn away in anger, even when we expect to be treated better because we’re white, or because our family founded the church, or  because we went to Wesleyan instead of Thread City Tech over in Willimantic.  

(Willimantic is the Thread City, because of the American Thread Mills…. and Thread City Tech is the local name for Eastern Connecticut State University.)

The second thing Paul uses to describe unity is about unity within the family of Christians.  He reminds us that there is one body and one Spirit, . . . one hope. . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all….  No matter the details of our faith, no matter the words we use in worship, or the clothes our leaders wear, no matter what, we are one.  We use many ways to worship the one Lord, our faith, tho different is still one, the baptism we use is the same throughout Christianity, and we all believe in one God who is a parent, our Creator, for it is when we follow God that we become one.  

In a few minutes we will share the Sacrament of Communion.  This day, when you take, and eat and drink, re-dedicate yourselves to this kind of unity, the unity of the Spirit of God, the unity of the bonds of peace and justice, love and mercy.

Amen.

© 2021, Virginia H. Child

I Don’t Mind Losing. . once. . . but this is going on and on

A sermon preached at the First Church UCC, Middletown, CT on September 26, 2021

Scripture: Psalm 30: 1-5

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me. 
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. 
O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. 
For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. 
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

My parents met and fell in love in the late 1930s.  She was a registered nurse, he taught high school agriculture.  As things moved along, they planned to be married in June of 1941, at the end of her current nursing contract.  Since her employment would end when she married – she would be fired, if it were not the end of her contract – they wanted her to keep working until the end.  They needed the money.

But, war was on the horizon, and in late 1940, a Selective Service Act was passed that made my father, then 24, eligible for the draft.  He didn’t want to go; she didn’t want him to go.  It soon became clear, however, that his local draft board disagreed, and the only exemption that could save him from the draft (remember, World War II had not yet started for us) == the only exemption he could claim would be if they were married.  They were getting married, in June, but that wasn’t soon enough.

In April of 1941, my parents eloped.  They were married over the weekend in his hometown of Woodstock, CT.  The Quaker wedding they’d planned, in her home meeting house in Gwynedd PA, couldn’t happen quickly enough.  Instead they put together a Quaker-style wedding (my oldest cousin, who was there – and about 8 – says it was the weirdest wedding he’s ever attended) in the First Congregational Church and had cake and punch, with photos in the front yard, back at the family home.  My mother’s younger brother was the only member of her family to attend.  and when they went back to New Jersey, they had to keep the marriage a secret so she wouldn’t get fired.  It must have been very different than what my mother expected.

Even the threat of war upended their plans for the future.

Over the past eighteen or so months, I’ve thought often of what life was like for them during WW2.  Mind you, it was much easier for them than for many…. my dad left teaching and worked for the US Dept of Agriculture during the war and was re-classified as an essential worker.  On the home front, they didn’t have to worry about his death; their cares and concerns look – at first – very simple:  will the tires last, can they get gasoline to go back and forth from New Jersey to Connecticut for thanksgiving… and is there enough coffee until new coupons show up for the ration book?  But at the same time, my mother was an airplane spotter, spending nights over at Fort Dix in a plane spotting tower looking for Nazi warplanes.  I know, and you know, there weren’t any planes, but what was her world like when she had to worry that someone would invade our little town?  Then her younger brother, the witness to her wedding, joined the Navy, and so did her favorite nephew.  The two of them went to the South Pacific.  When her parents died, in 1943 and 1944, they weren’t home.

The world was turned upside down.  They didn’t know what tomorrow would bring.  One day, a great battle is won, the next another is lost.  And the war went on and on and on.   Sixteen million Americans served in that war; of them around four hundred thousand died.

So far, about six hundred eighty thousand people in our country have died from COVID.  

Like those parents, grandparents, from that Greatest Generation, we’ve lost a lot.  Plans were changed; weddings happened – or were postponed because of this disease.  

Parents died, and there was no funeral – or there was a funeral, on Zoom.

Our children were stuck at home, separated from friends, forced into closer contact with their families than perhaps any of us wanted.  

We used to go to work, but for most of us, for an awful long time, the commute to work was a walk from the kitchen to the dining room, while your spouse was using the living room, and the kids were doing their classes in a space in the bedroom.  The only creature who found this good, and fun, was the dog, who loved having you home.  The cat – not so much.  

We missed our families.  We missed senior proms and graduations.  We missed going off to college, week-long business trips, and the traditional summer vacation at the camp. 

And here your pastor left

If you are in the medical field, mostly it wasn’t about what you missed, but what you experienced.  No medical person likes losing a patient, and I can’t begin to describe what it’s been like for them as they cared for so many and then watched them die.  I can’t imagine what it’s like now that there’s a vaccine, and yet people continue to get sick and die because they refuse the vaccine – and some even refuse to believe that they actually have COVID as they are dying.  That’s hard.  That’s really hard.

Early on in the epidemic, I came across a YouTube video of a Mennonite acapella choir singing “We Are Not Alone” by Pepper Choplin.  I probably listened to it daily for the first few months.  It became an anthem for the congregation I was leading.  We were truly alone; no one in our congregation was the least bit techie. We were not able to do any kind of on-line worship, tho I quickly learned how to video myself giving a sermon and began to send out daily meditations.  The song reminded us, however, that what we had was more important than what we did not. 

It reminded us that, separated as we were by our health concerns, we still had God.

We’ve lost a lot.  Just this week, a high school in our state almost went back to virtual classes because the students seem to have lost the ability to get along with one another.  We’ve all seen the reports of airline passengers who seem unable to handle being in a plane (so very difficult even before COVID).  It’s beginning to look as though we need to re-learn how to be together in groups again.

But no matter how much we’ve lost, we have not been alone.  Whatever we’ve forgotten how to do, we will learn it again.  

One of the things we’ve learned, I hope, is how  important it is to acknowledge what’s lost.  It is not a sign of weakness to admit to loss and pain.  It is not a sign of incompetence to admit our technological insufficiencies.  It’s not to our shame to name our angers and frustrations.  Life will go on, but it is not the same as it was in February of 2020.

Our strength comes from the example of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  By the way he lived and died, we have an example of how to live in the midst of the worst that life can offer.  Jesus, for instance, named his fears – father, he said, take this cup from me if it be your will… and then, he went on, trusting in the constant support of the God who had made him.

We, too, have that support.  for today, it’s named in Psalm 30.  The writer testifies – when they were alone, when things went bad, then God was at their side.  Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

The problem with this testimony is that it’s not true for everyone all the time.  One of my Facebook friends has been talking lately about how depressed he is, and I don’t think he’s at all alone.  This life is tough, and sometimes nothing we can say is going to make someone who’s struggling believe that they never are alone, that God is always with us.  

Here’s the truth.  That’s the way life is.  Sometimes it’s all there, sometimes it’s not.  And when it’s not, that’s hard.  It’s the place where, when it happens to me, I trust in the faith, love, acceptance I see in others.  I trust in the knowledge I have that in the past the whole of the church has continued to move along, always getting closer to God’s call to us.  I trust in the power of the community – even community gathered by Zoom – to be able to lift us up.  And I trust that even though I am living by rote, better days will come.

So I can say, without doubt, that while things have been difficult, while life has been awful, while we have lost so much, the one thing that we – as a community – have not lost, will not lose, is God’s constant presence, God’s sustaining love.

Amen.

© 2021 Virginia H. Child