Rev. Tom Ott
Matthew 25: 34-37
Last week we celebrated One Body worship by canceling both of our normal Sunday morning worship services and inviting everyone to come together at 11:00AM. We were celebrating confirmation last Sunday and it felt right to assemble the whole congregation to lay hands on the five young people who joined their lives to the life and ministry of the Christian community.
Many of us really look forward to our One Body celebrations. There is lots of energy in the room because the sanctuary is filled with people. We get to see folks who don’t normally worship with us on Sunday morning. And we get to experience more variety in our worship ritual as we incorporate elements from two very different services into one celebration. Inevitably after one of our One Body services, several people will come up to me and say “We need to do this more often.”
But the number of people who come to our One Body worship celebrations is always less than the number of people who come to our two different services. Sometimes people just forget about the schedule change and show up too early or too late for the service that day, but a significant portion of the congregation doesn’t want to cancel the service they prefer in order to be together with everyone.
Last week I was following an interesting Facebook thread about Sunday’s One Body service. It started out very complimentary with one person posting a message about how much she appreciated a song that was sung by a soloist. Several others echoed her appreciation but then the comments took a more evaluative tone. One person observed that we seem to be finding our groove for One Body Worship. To him, last week felt like the best one we’d ever done and that sparked some conversation about what made it better: maybe it was because of the special occasion that provided a good reason for the whole community to be together or maybe it was because it wasn’t like either of the two regular services but had elements that were new to everyone.
And then the conversation became more critical. Some of the elements that had been planned for the service didn’t work out the way they were planned and that felt disappointing. Some people wondered who we were trying to reach with the service and whether or not the target audience found the experience meaningful. Some suggested that more people ought to be included in the planning of One Body worship. Some admitted they don’t ever come to the One Body services because it doesn’t give them the kind of worship experience they value like the one they have when they attend the service they prefer.
Here at First Congregational Church one of our core strategic priorities is to embody difference faithfully, but as I followed all the twists and turns of last week’s Facebook thread on our One Body Worship service, what I realized is that we are all drawn to people who like what we like. Whether we are young or old, conservative or liberal, traditional or modern, 10 o’clockers or 11:45’ers, we are most comfortable being with people we have the most in common with: people who dress like us, talk like us, behave like us, believe like us.
The truth is, there are multiple cultures within our faith community: not just the 10:00 worship culture and the 11:45 Koinonia culture. Within each of those bodies there are multiple cultures. There are some who value pageantry, formalized ritual, robes, vestments, candles and sacred symbols. It inspires awe and reverence in them and makes them mindful of the transcendent power and majesty of God. There are others who value simplicity, for whom the casual intimacy of worship makes them mindful of the imminence of God in the ordinary affairs of daily life.
There are some for whom the sound of a pipe organ inspires a worshipful spirit. There are some for whom the throbbing sound of a bass guitar and the driving beat of percussion produce a worshipful spirit. There are some who are moved to pray by sitting still and being quiet: they communicate best with God by bowing their heads, folding their hands and closing their eyes. There are others who pray best by moving their bodies, raising their arms, calling out to God with their own voices.
There are some who cherish 19th century hymnology: hymns that sing our theology and remind us of our connections with our parents and our grandparents who sang the same sacred songs. There are people for whom contemporary metaphors, common language and the rhythms of music they listen to every day helps them connect their daily life experiences to their life with God.
There are people for whom this sanctuary has become sacred space, who feel the presence of God most fully in their lives when they take their places in the pews that they have returned to week after week seeking solace, comfort, inspiration and hope. For them, this is the place where all of the most significant experiences in their lives have been celebrated: it is where they grieved the death of their parents, joined their lives in marriage and rejoiced in the birth of their children. There are others for whom this place is nothing more than a convenient place to gather because for them, it is the relationships that are sacred. They feel the presence of God embodied in the connections they have formed with the people they meet when they gather here: people they have grown to know and trust, people who have been there for them in times of sorrow and joy, people who have prayed with them, laughed with them, wept with them and rejoiced with them.
There are lots of different cultures within this congregation, and each cultural group has its own reasons for wanting things the way they want them, but this week as I followed the Facebook thread on our One Body service, I found myself wondering whether we really want to know each other well enough to understand and appreciate those differences?
Here is what usually happens in any organization, including churches, whenever different cultures begin to emerge: we sort ourselves into groups of people who are like us, who see things the way we see them and want things the way we want them. And then, before long, the different groups become competing factions. They develop an “us” and “them” mindset and begin to keep score of who gets their way when. When did they win and when did we win? In the best case scenario, people in the different competing factions learn to accommodate each other. They try to balance out the wins and losses and learn to tolerate each other. In the worst case scenario, the competing factions destroy each other. It becomes a battle for power that eventually results in one faction winning and the other being banished.
But this week the spiritual practice that Barbra Brown Taylor introduced encourages us to consider a different way of being in community; one that moves us beyond tolerance and inspires us to cherish our differences.
In her book, An Altar in the World, Taylor writes:
“…encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get-in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing-which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead. (102)”
Barbra Brown Taylor calls us into a different kind of community: one that sees God in the distinctiveness of each individual. Instead of isolating ourselves into groups of likeminded individuals, Christian community calls us to embrace the beautiful diversity of the world that God has created. Instead of making assumptions about why people do and say the things that they do, followers of Jesus are challenged to learn each other’s stories and become curious about the experiences that shaped each other’s lives.
Most of us are familiar with the words that Jesus said in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Usually we hear those words as a call to respond to those who are in need. Our shorthand translation of Jesus’ message is: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. But that misses the true focus of the teaching. The phrase that gets repeated over and over again in our text for this morning is the phrase, “When was it that we saw you…when was it that we saw you…when was it that we saw you…?”
It is our capacity for seeing each other that is at the heart of authentic Christian community. That is what makes it possible for us to move beyond the divisive “us and them” mentality that permeates most social organizations. That is what moves us beyond competing factions that, at best, learn to tolerate their differences and at worst, end up destroying each other.
Authentic Christian community isn’t rooted in consensus of doctrine, or worship practices, or programs or polity. Authentic Christian community is rooted in the knowledge that God is most fully present when we see each other fully. Amen.