May We Trust in Presence and Live in Peace

January 15, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:18-29; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17


Those of us who are old enough may recall the 1960s with fondness. Troubled as the times were, it started as a hopeful decade, a period when many of us dreamed that better days were on the horizon. We sang and dreamed of love and peace. We thought that the Civil Rights movement would put an end to racism and that the war on poverty might be won. Half a century later we are very aware that those battles have not been won. The rich are getting richer; the poor are getting poorer; racism, prejudice, and sexism, have not been set aside.  Where does Union Church, a place that we describe as Peace and Presence by the Sea fit into all of this?

Today, as our nation is deeply divided about a great many issues, we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who also lived in and led in a nation that was very torn. On September 15, 1963, white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls who were attending Sunday school. Dr. King’s charged eulogy for these small children was then and still remains one of his most controversial speeches. Claiming them as martyrs for the cause of justice, Dr. King said, “These girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel . . . They have something to say to every politician …. They have something to say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”

Dr. King urged us to be concerned about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. And at the same time, in the midst of this terrible tragedy, he offered hope, saying that the death of these little children may lead us from the low road of man’s inhumanity to man to the high road of peace and brotherhood. He urged us not to despair, not to become bitter nor to harbor the desire to retaliate with violence.  He counseled that we not lose faith, rather to believe that the most misguided can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human persons. He concluded by saying that life is hard; that it has its bleak and difficult moments, but that this is only part of the picture.  Dr. King stated, “Like the ever-flowing waters of the river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of its summers and the piercing chill of its winters. And if one will hold on, he will discover that God walks with him, and that God is able to lift us from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope, and transform dark and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of inner peace.”

In today’s second reading we heard Paul address serious divisions in the church at Corinth. The reports that Paul was hearing indicated that the congregation had split into various factions. Paul dismissed such division as nonsense. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided?”

Paul’s desire for this community is that they be united. When Paul calls the community “to be united in the same mind and same purpose,” he is using language that was common in Greco-Roman philosophical and ethical discussions on friendship. However, we must note that he is not calling for them to give up their distinctions. Paul clearly recognizes that in the church in Corinth, situated at one of the Roman Empire’s major transportation hubs, is a place of great diversity.  The people are educated and uneducated, of high and low status, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. Paul’s call to have the “same mind and purpose” is not asking individuals to relinquish their distinctive identities. Paul suggests that their different views, their different preferences are minor compared to a shared commitment to Jesus that unites them and has the power to transform a broken and factionalized little church into a strong unified community with a common purpose.  Dr. King’s eulogy of the girls who died in the Birmingham bombing articulated this same basic concept.

More recently another tragic event of racial violence occurred.  A mass shooting and hate crime took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago, on the evening of June 17, 2015. During a prayer service, nine people were killed. Following this terrible event, another black leader, President Barack Obama responded eloquently.  He stated,

“Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about the deaths happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.

The President continued, “Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.” The president then talked about racism and that we need to strive to make real the hope of Dr. King and work passionately and unrelentingly together for the realization of the American Dream.

What can Dr. King’s eulogy, President Obama’s message and Paul’s letter teach our deeply divided nation today? Do they have guidance for our church community? We find ourselves living now in a nation that is factionalized. As in Paul’s little church in Corinth, so also today we divide ourselves into camps. And yet, both Dr. King and President Obama stress the need to continue to recognize the dissonance between God’s vision of peace and justice and the reality that we experience in the world today, and that we have the courage to do our part in advancing God’s reign.  Likewise, not only in first Corinthians read in part this morning, but in all of Paul’s nine letters to churches, he encourages both living more in line with gospel values and prays for unity among the members.

We honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and show our gratitude for his moral leadership by asking ourselves from time to time “Does our faith community fall short of the ideals he promoted?”  This dance of recognizing that God’s vision for our world has not become a reality and therefore we need to grow and do what we can to work for justice while at the same time living in peaceful unity is one that is more difficult in practice than it is in theory. As we look around us, we appear to be a homogeneous group of white, mostly older folks. And yet, as our church profile describes accurately, we are a very diverse community in our religious backgrounds, theological beliefs, spiritual leanings and practices; and individuals within our group hold some opposing political positions and differing visions on some social and environmental issues. This is not new. We have always done well honoring our religious and spiritual differences.  As a church we’ve prided ourselves in welcoming and celebrating our diversity as a treasured blessing. Still as we continue to be a joyful, warm and welcoming community, we mustn’t become complacent and assume that we are immune to the negativity we see and hear all around us.  Now we are challenged more than ever to continue to show reverence for individuals who have different political positions than our own.  In doing so, we not only fortify the unity within diversity that we have enjoyed in our church, we may be a model for the wider community as we engage in the common purpose  of advancing the reign of God with respect for all.  The unmerited suffering of the innocent calls us to nothing less than engaging those with whom we disagree with courage and yet non-violently in our attitudes and in our words.

President Obama’s statement, “There is something particularly heartbreaking about the deaths happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship” hit home for me.  Recently a couple in our church was very upset by comments I made in a sermon. For my part I will continue to speak periodically about issues of social justice and highlight the causes of the marginalized, because these are Gospel values.  However, I will be much more careful than I have been to respect the diversity of views in our community and cautious about words that may be experienced as offensive.  It is also unfortunate when people come to Union Church, a place we describe as Peace and Presence by the Sea, also for solace and are offended by political comments made by other church members. And yet, at times individuals who are upset and worried, and discouraged feel a need to share their pain and be comforted.

Our church, like all churches, accomplishes its mission, I believe, by being both a space of comfort as well as a place of challenge. Our services should provide solace and Sabbath rest. At the same time, I pray that as we reflect on the scriptures and listen to each other in conversations at our coffee hour and in our church related gatherings we will find, in the words of Jan Richardson, “something that stretches us into new terrain, that invites us to think or move or pray in a direction that will draw us into some uncharted territory in our souls, and there find the God who always waits to meet us in those spaces that lie beyond what is familiar and comfortable.”

This week, as we reflect upon Dr. King’s legacy and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it’s important to remember that the call to unity does not mean giving up what is distinctive about us as individuals, or pressuring  others to give up what is distinctive about them. It means remembering and celebrating our common sense of purpose in a transformative and diverse community. We are a worshiping community that gathers to give thanks and to celebrate the Holy Presence of God in all things. We seek to reflect the love and compassion of God through our conduct. And look at what we do!  Through the dedicated efforts of many of you working on such projects as our annual Speakers Series, Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras and the Animal Blessing, we support a number of mission partners including In-a-Pinch Non-Food Pantry, Saco Meals Program, Stone Soup Food Pantry, Seeds of Hope Drop-in Center, the Kindness Initiative, Alternative Pathways,  Ever After Mustang Rescue and Holy Cross Anglican School of Belize in addition to  making contributions to various community appeals and giving to individuals with emergency needs. Also, a significant percentage of our church members volunteer their time to these organizations as well as visit individual shut-ins, provide soup to our friends and members who are sick or recovering from surgery, and minister at our monthly prayer service at St. Andre’s Health Center. Given our size, all this is amazing. We are recognized as the little church with the big heart.  As a diverse community living in peace and sharing in love, I believe we are a sign of hope to the wider community.

How do we get the strength that we need to continue doing this and not be drawn into the divisiveness and negativity so prevalent in today’s culture? How do we get to the mountaintop that Dr. King and Jesus both talked about?  In the midst of all the chaos, despair, and hopelessness, there are plenty of indications that God has not given up on us and our society, and we need to point those signs out to each other. In the Black church they say: God may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time.”

Our first reading was of David praying for his family, his people: “You established your people to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. May it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

So first, I think that we also pray for continued unity in our church, and healing for our nation and for the world. Second we remember that there is much more that unites us, than divides us and we do our best to balance the courage to speak the truth as we understand it but in the spirit of Christian love. And third, we support each other in hope, trusting that good is stronger than evil and that Love will win out. In these ways we continue to preserve the unity, the love, and the joy that is Union Church. In the spirit of deep gratitude for this worshiping community may we all do our part to live together in peace and reflect God’s Presence to all we meet.