Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, January 20, 2013: WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
WHAT DOES GOD REQUIRE OF US?
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was invented just over 100 years ago, and its timing was based on two significant faith events: the Confession of Peter on January 18 and the Conversion of Paul on January 25 – festivals commemorating two breakthrough moments in the history of Christianity – two great moments of awakening and transformation — and ironically, linking together two people who in life did not get along with each other!
Each year a different country is approached and each year a different theme emerges. This year’s version of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes from India – particularly from the perspective of the Dalit people, people from the low end of the social spectrum — long-term out-castes whose experience of injustice and prejudice has been chronic and severe. The majority of Christians in India come from a Dalit background.
The theme chosen by the Dalit church leaders is from the Book of the prophet Malachi, which asks and answers the question, “What does God require of us?” The answer has to do with choosing a particular journey – a journey of justice and kindness and humility. I like the fact that it links prayer with action.
What is the essence of religion? The prophet Malachi suggests we already know: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In other words, it’s a lot simpler than we often tend to make it.
I have said for many years that my prevailing image of our efforts at ecumenism is from the old Monty Python show, the skit about the Upper Class Twit of the Year. In this skit, a group of men, all similarly dressed in suits and bowler hats, attempt to move around a large circle on a soccer pitch, encountering various obstacles and tests along the way. One test requires them to jump over a row of match boxes stacked three high, and it proves to be almost an insurmountable problem for all of them.
It does seem somewhat comic – perhaps tragi-comic – that Churches that are essentially 95% the same can’t find a way to get over the obstacle that the 5% difference represents. We let the smallest things keep us apart. Instead of challenging Christians to take a few baby steps toward each other, The Week of Prayer really should celebrate the unity that already exists between Christian churches while looking toward the greater challenges of Inter-Faith understanding and cooperation.
The great Indian poet, Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, one who was very sympathetic to the Dalit people at a time when that was not politically correct, said:
“The civilization of ancient Greece was nurtured within city walls. In fact, all modern civilizations have their cradles in brick and mortar. These walls leave their mark deep in our minds. They set up a principle of “divide and rule” in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another. We divide nation and nation, knowledge and knowledge, humankind and nature. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition” (Sadhana, p. 1).
As another author has said, 3000 year old habits are hard to break. Walls are what define us, even in the realm of faith. It becomes hard to conceive of any other way.
It goes without saying that not all walls are evil, yet the scriptures speak of Jesus as one who was crucified outside the walls, and one of the most essential things that it says about the purpose of Jesus is: “he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph 2:14). St. Paul suggests that in Christ all the old definitions and divisions — between male and female, people of different religions, between rich and poor – no longer are relevant, and need to be redefined in a new vision of humanity.
One of my seminary professors made me aware that the German word for sin is sunde, which means separation, as in “asunder.” It was enlightening to me to understand sin not merely as some particular moral failing but as separation – being apart. An ancient Muslim mystic named Hafez spoke of how we need to stop struggling against the fundamental unity of things: “your separation from God is the hardest work in this world.” Separation is a denial of, and resistance to, the inexorable love of God for all things. In this sense, you could say that the opposite of sin is communion.
What does God require of us? That we act! That we get beyond the abstract and theoretical and actually DO something that makes a difference. DO justice, LOVE kindness, WALK humbly in God’s presence. Especially, it appeals to us to get out from behind the familiar walls, physical or otherwise. It’s really a very simple formula, yet it’s amazing that it’s the exception, not the norm. Maybe that’s why in our day so many people find it difficult to venture into our churches, and are defining themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.” Maybe they see us as being too much about walls, and not just the physical ones.
Joshua blew the trumpets of the Lord and the walls of Jericho fell down. It’s a great image for our time. Ironically, Israel simply built other walls, but the religion of Jesus always obliges us to challenge our assumptions, our entitlements, our ways of assigning merit, because they are often wrong, and even when they’re right, they very quickly become dated.
At a time of terrible oppression and darkness, a time of religious confusion and elitism, a time of racial hatred and war and impending holocaust, Jesus comes along, saying, “love your enemies,” and speaking of oneness – unity – in a way that reminded the people of Isaiah’s great vision of the wolf and the lamb, the lion and the calf – and revived in people a hope that things could be different.
In the Christian vision of things, caste systems, gender differences, even beliefs, are not to be allowed to keep people from seeing themselves as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ.
Why was Jesus crucified? Because he claimed oneness with God, and because he would not accept the arbitrary barriers of separation. His enemies wanted to maintain those barriers because they saw them as God-given, or as necessary to protect themselves, but the One we call Son of God taught that it was not God’s will that only a few are chosen, only a few are to be fed, only a few who matter. In the kingdom, there is room for all, there is work for all, and God’s blessings are freely given to all.
In all the justifications for variety and difference in our world, I wonder what has happened to the summons to community, and in this microscopic age I yearn for a macro-scopic vision that enables us to see the common threads linking us all. We make elaborate and sophisticated excuses for our separateness and exclusiveness – for our flagrant indifference to the plain meaning of Christ’s teaching — instead of apologizing to the world for our lack of unity. It is time to start witnessing to the universal nature of our calling.
As today’s Gospel reminds us, in the story of two disciples who have left the familiar walls of the holy city, cast out and uncertain about the future — that it is in walking with the stranger, becoming aware of who is with us on the road, in those vulnerable places in life, and in choosing not to be blind to the least among us, that we begin to realize the way of Christ, and life becomes a feast to be shared. The stranger turns out to be no stranger at all, but the Christ they were too preoccupied, frightened and despondent to notice. We do not see Christ in the other because we do not expect to. In the Road to Emmaus story, Luke’s Gospel offers an important insight into the true meaning of the Eucharist.
The Week of Prayer is not meant to be one of our token and typical acts of wishful thinking. It is a challenge to do things differently, and to ask again, with renewed intention: What does the Lord require of us?
45 years ago American astronaut Neil Armstrong put his foot on the surface of the moon and said, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” To Pastor Kathy and I, today’s exchange may seem like setting foot on another planet, and going way outside our comfort zones, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s not much. And yet a step is something – it’s not nothing – and in some cases can be very meaningful. And the moment you take a step together, you end up somewhere else than you have been. In this case, may this exchange be a sign – a symbol – inviting us to have the faith to embrace the true unity we have in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Micah 6: 6—8 ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Galatians 3: 26—28 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,* heirs according to the promise.
Luke 24: 13—35 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles* from Jerusalem,14and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.15While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,16but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.17And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.*18Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’19He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,* who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,20and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.21But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.* Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.22Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,23and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.24Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’25Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!26Was it not necessary that the Messiah* should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’27Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.29But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them.30When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.31Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.32They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us* while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.34They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.