Greetings from Perryopolis Parish!
This is only the third time I've ever preached in a Presbyterian Church. The first time was at the church at Wind Ridge and I'll never forget it, nor will Wind Ridge I don't suppose! While I was making some important point I swept my arm like this and knocked the reading lamp off of the preaching desk. It fell with a great deal of clamor down onto the communion table knocking both vases of flowers including floods of water into the collection plates. One good lady told me as she shook my hand afterwards, "I must say Mr. Davis, you're the first preacher we've ever had over to baptize our collection!"
But despite my clumsiness I believe inter-church relationships are greatly improved these days from what they once were. Perhaps you've heard the story of the three churches in town that stood side by side. First the Baptist, then next to it the Methodist, and next to that one the Nazarenes. The competition was something fierce among the three churches and the spirit of cooperation was nil. Well, it so happened that during a certain week in the Fall all three churches had scheduled revivals -- all of them on the same nights at the same hours. This was all out war!
The night was rather warm for that time of the year and so the churches opened their windows to let in the cooler breezes. The song service began first at the Baptists with that good old Baptist hymn: "Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown?" No more than had they started singing it when the Methodist church sang all the louder the old gospel song, "No Not One!" Not to be outdone by either the Nazarenes chimed in all the louder, "Oh That Will Be, Glory For Me!"
I've always subscribed to our family doctor's good advice. When he learned that I was going to become a minister he asked my parents if I might stop by to see him so that he could congratulate me. I'll never forget it: there was Dr. Hunger, feet up on the desk, puffing one of those big old black cigars that smelled like burning carpet. "Well," said he, "I understand you're going to be a Methodist preacher. That's really great! But son always remember what I'm going to tell you now and you'll get along just fine: as you know I am Jewish by birth, I belong to the Methodist Church, I attended Lutheran schools, I think like a Presbyterian, and most of my patients are Catholics!"
Presently our denominations are going through their own crisis and it would seem that though the ecumenical state of things is excellent and Dr. Hunger would be pleased at this I am sure, we are losing members on a huge scale. Our various treasuries are forced to make drastic cuts in the most basic of programs. Church attendance everywhere is declining at alarming rates. And amidst all of this there are those who have a mistaken idea that we can fix it with unions of denominations.
Now I did not say, "with church unity", that is not necessarily the same thing at all: but union of denominations. Let everybody set aside their differences, gloss over those things that make us Methodists or Baptists or whatever and just find common ground and become one. Sounds good I suppose but this is not the answer nor will it ever be the answer even with our own churches whose cooperation with each other has become legendary and of which I am proud to be a part.
The confusion, the wrong-headedness of such thinking is not in longing for Christian unity. Rather, it is in supposing that bigger is better and differences matter not a bit. We have taken on a siege mentality and I seem to hear the old Revolutionary War cry, "Unite or Die!" That, of course was true for the United States, but we are not countries ... we are the people of God and already belong to the one Kingdom of which He alone is Lord and King.
Let us remember that unity is a state of heart, a state of being and that it was bought by Christ at Calvary's Cross. He has prayed that we might be one and so we are one. To say that we are not one in Christ is to say that Christ's prayer to His Father went unanswered, has gone unanswered all of these many, many years. You and I are already one in the Lord, we must act upon that blessed unity. Politics, be they governmental or ecclesiastical will never make us one ... only Christ can make us one, and we are One in Him!
Why then, if this is all true, are we in such a deplorable state of things nationally? I am afraid that at least in part we have been lulled into a deep sleep with our dreams of physical union. The seeming disorientation of Christianity with its ever multiplying denominations and sects worry us. Somehow we feel that since nobody is in the Driver's seat we had better take the control. But, you see, there is Someone in the Drivers seat, He that sitteth upon the throne. When, as recently happened, not all of the Evangelical United Brethren went into the merger with the Methodist Church many were perplexed. When, again, the Methodist-Anglican dialogue seems to lead nowhere we are down-heartened. One failure after another in an age of ecumenicity. How can such a thing be? we ask. This is the twentieth century, not the nineteenth.
But there is the wisdom of God and our greatest wisdom is but foolishness before it. Did God form all souls into one mold? I hardly think so. No, rather, God is calling us to be the redeemed souls we proclaim ourselves to be. It is not important that we are Presbyterians or Episcopalians, it is important that we are actively following Christ. The problem is not to be resolved with unions but rather it is to be resolved when we stop "playing at church" and instead dare to become the church wherever we are, whatever our names.
When we can sing what John Newton wrote those many years ago, and sing it with all of our hearts and minds and souls then we shall not worry about union schemes but we shall rather be candles aflame for Christ in this present dark world:
When we've been there ten thousand years,
bright, shining as the sun,
we've no less time to praise His name
than when we first begun!
It is my prayer that He is awakening us! I always liked the meaning behind the Buddha's name: "The Awakened One". We need to be not Buddhists but Christians and the truly awakened ones. It is Christ's will for us all to be one and so we are one!
He has prayed the prayer that must be answered in our hearts and not in our conferences and conventions: "Oh Father, I pray that they all be one, even as we are one!" (John 17:21)
St. Paul would remind us again of the foolishness of those who boast of being baptized under Peter's ministry, or under Thomas' ministry, or even under Paul's ministry. St. Paul would not be deterred by the myriad of sects springing up all over the place: he would simply observe: "nevertheless Christ is preached!" And nothing in Heaven or upon the earth or under the earth can change it: "One Lord, one baptism, one Faith!" (Eph. 4:5)
Haven't we been putting the cart before the horse for too long! The vision of one church is not a vain thing any more than the belief in our being one or another person, but nevertheless that person. No, our unity is in our behavior toward our brethren ... we do not seek out specks in the Baptist's eye when we know darn well we have a plank in our own ... what we see and dislike in others is generally what the problem actually is with ourselves. And there are many problems with ourselves, as the daemonic proclaimed: "We are legion for there are so many of us!" (Mark 5:9)!" It will take Christ to drive such disunity from us, dare we ask Him to do so and really mean it?
Oh yes but it is true isn't it: "the spirit willing, flesh weak". And Paul is not alone when he complains of himself that he does those things he oughtn't do and does not those things he should do." Peter's benediction is for us all, "The Lord establish you, strengthen you, settle you." (I Peter 5:10)
This much is clear, we are involved and it is long since past the time to stop our silly bickering, our much ado about nothing! The Broadway musical has it right, dare we dare do more than hum the tune:
In Luke 4:1 after Christ's baptism, He was "driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted!" Shall we escape the same if we are truly following? I think not! Now is your moment of decision . . . will we take Christ seriously and be the church.
We are all of us read as a gospel, whether we like it or not. What is your unwritten gospel for today? Is, at the heart of it, our unity in involvement with the human race. After all my brethren, God became Man because He knew that without His unity with our fallen Humanity we were all surely doomed.
It there is to be a oneness to this broken world then the church of this same God must be involved with humanity. I think of the other day when I visited East Liberty. Oh what a simple walk down the avenue can say about it all: what did I feel when I saw a bushy haired black man, fear! And the little old lady with the big pin that proclaimed: "Let me introduce you to Jesus", I felt a bit embarrassed for her. Then there was the man talking to himself, I crossed the street. The ragged derelict and the well-dressed Chihuahua on the same sidewalk: what did I feel but how odd this world is, how strange are its inhabitants.
And everywhere on Penn Avenue those expressionless faces, the feeling of lostness. What was it that Frank Mason North wrote:
The cup of water given for thee
Still holds the freshness of thy grace;
Yet long these multitudes to see
The sweet compassion of thy face. (the answer here)
For God so loved the world, this odd, mean, foolish world. And would we show unity with Him for without Him all such attempts are vain things. Let us walk then with Jesus who had compassion both upon the crowd and upon the poor old woman; Jesus who wept for a city and at a friend's graveside; Jesus who blessed the forgotten ones, the little "children", and the meek of this world. Jesus is our unity: Jesus who forgave them all from His cross; Jesus who recognized people as souls: be they adulteress, tax collectors, or scheming lawyers . . .
And the world, for better for worse, is His, and yes, we are one with Him as He's prayed that we might be.
John Greenleaf Whittier--
The church is here to be a conscience for the world, to stand apart from world order, to, for the sake of this world, be not conformed to the world but transformed by Christ! Rom. 12:12 We are here that it may be realized what Paul urged of the Christians of every age: be ye separate 2 Cor 6:17
To become a conscience is to become an unpopular thing. Perhaps our problem isn't so much with unity as it is with fear of this world and its opinions of us. But we must learn once more that in His church there is human unity, that race or gender are quite unimportant, that we are brothers who recognize as he recognized! That we are (Acts 17:26) ... of that one blood from which he made all nations ...Hear your brother man in the words of Shakespeare's Shylock:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? ... Shylock. (Merchant of Venice)
Our presence is the presence of Good Samaritan and with the poetess Millay we must own that:
And all the while with every grief
each suffering I craved relief
with individual desire, craved all in vain
and felt fierce fire about a thousand people craw
perished with each,
then mourned for all.
A man was starving in capri,
he moved his eyes and looked at me
I felt his gaze, I heard his moan, and
knew his hunger as my own,
I saw at sea a great fog bank between two ships that
struck and sank,
a thousand screams the heavens smote,
and every scream tore through my throat,
no hurt I did not feel, no death that was not mine
mine each last breath that crying met
an answering cry
from the compassion that was I
all suffering mine and mine the rod,
and pity, like the pity of God ....
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