By Rev. J. Nathan King
24 January 2016 Ecumenism Sunday
John 10:11-21; Isaiah 56:1-8 (scroll to bottom of sermon for scripture readings)
“Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairer of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
What do we mean by ecumenism and why is it important? A religious man tells this story:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, “Stop! Don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well, are you religious or atheist?” He said, “Religious.” I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or something else?” He said, “Christian.” I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist? He said, “Baptist!” I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord? He said, Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!” I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?” He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915!” I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
When we talk about ecumenism, that’s not what we’re talking about. That’s division of the trivial kind. But so many things in common!
When we talk about ecumenism, generally we mean our relationship with other Christians of different denominations. In my covenant classes for newcomers I talk about the Christian family tree that begins with Jewish and Greek thought as its roots, and has Jesus in the center of that rootedness. It protrudes then with the early Catholic church forming the lower trunk. Then, branches begin splitting off with the Armenian, Coptic, and Georgian Christians; then the Eastern church; then many others including the Protestant Reformation groups that formed various “denominations” of Christianity. They are all Christian, but different denominations.
Ecumenism in that context means recognizing our commonalities with other Christian groups, celebrating that common ground, and working together to be united in Christ. The UCC is a wonderful, if weird, expression of what happens when some of those estranged groups begin getting together officially in covenant with each other.
And even this sort of Christian ecumenism is held suspect by some Christian groups and denominations that think they’re going to be the only ones in heaven.
I think you all know that it doesn’t matter at Trinity what denomination you came from. In fact, some of you still carry with you precious memories as well as some beliefs and practices of your previous denominations such as celebrating holy communion, crossing oneself upon entering the worship space, and certain prayers and rituals, among others.
But what about other religions? Should we be seeking common ground with them too?
This question gets us into what Matt Fox calls “deep ecumenism.” Deep ecumenism means not only looking for ways to make connections of mutual concern with other Christian groups, it means looking for ways to make connections of mutual concern with groups in other religions.
We’ve read from the Jewish, or Hebrew Scriptures today as we do many Sundays. And we’ve read from our Christian Scriptures as we also do many Sundays. In a sense, we connect with our Jewish counterparts on a regular basis through reading of scripture. Whenever we read from the first five books in the bible, we also connect with our Islamic counterparts who claim as sacred the first five books of our bible. So I assume you know Jews, Muslims, and Christians hold sacred this common body of sacred writings.
There must be common ground between us.
But what about other people? People in other religions?
Several years ago, my own journey of faith led me to explore some other religions. In my Baptist seminary I took a class on world religions and explored the idea of grace and karma. It was a most rewarding independent study. I learned a lot about Buddhism in its various forms.
In the class itself we were gifted with the presence of Buddhists, Hindus, Hare Krishnas, Imams. I learned I did not have to fear these who believed differently and practiced differently from me. On the contrary, I found them to be holy and sacred people with sacred practices of goodness, love, and justice.
In that reading from Isaiah, the prophet declares that regardless of one’s condition, region, belief, or religion, when one works for justice and is good, there is a place in the household of God. I’m thankful today that my seminary professors’ classrooms were large enough to explore and embrace the best of all religions. I learned appreciation of others’ beliefs and practices. I learned to find common ground with them.
I read Buddhist writings and practiced breathing meditation as a form of daily prayer and I fell in love with the teachings of Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, whose book Living Buddha, Living Christ explores the similarities on the two paths of Buddhism and Christianity. Another of his books, Peace Is Every Step, served as an indispensable meditational guide for me as I was learning to sit still and listen for the voice and spirit of God, rather than try to create it with my own words and thoughts.
I say all that to say this: I am a Christian and we are a Christian church and we follow the principles of Christianity as we understand them through serious exploration of our holy writings, mostly stories, we call scripture. And in those holy writings, mostly stories, we call scripture, one of the principles, embraced over and again, both in the Jewish scriptures we embrace with Isaiah, and in our Christian scriptures we embrace with John’s story of Jesus, is the principle of greater things.
Isaiah declares God’s house, or temple, will be great enough to embrace the foreigner with their religion and the one even whose body has been altered and formerly declared unfit for God’s house.
Jesus says there are other sheep not of this fold. He may have meant Judaism. But if we interpret this saying today, we’d have to recognize that the precedent set by Jesus in this passage, which is not alone in its widening embrace of others, is true to how Jesus treats this idea generally. So to follow Jesus in this widening embrace of others, we would have to also expand our embrace of sheep not of our fold, sheep from folds other than the Christian pen or house.
The best illustration I’ve found for our relationship with other Christians and people of other religions comes from Matt Fox through the Middle Age mystic Meister Eckhart. Eckhart said God is a great underground river that no one can dam up. Then Fox in his book, One River, Many Wells, explores the truth that we all come from this one Source that is the Creator, or our Higher Power, or as Eckhart says, this great underground river. Fox teaches that from God, spring many wells (religious paths) that rise up to the surface and provide needed sustenance for those who drink from those spiritual wells. To explore other religions, one must go down deeply into one’s own well of religious teachings and find the source.
This I believe is a needed calling at this point in our world where people of other faiths are held suspect because of a few who profess a particular form of their religion. Indeed, it is more difficult to sift through the fundamentalists practitioners to find those with whom one can arrive at common grounds of goodness, love, and justice. It is a hard work, but is I am convinced, a greater work than just staying in our own places of comfortable belief divided from each other and making the world a divisive place. Religion has been accused of causing many of these divisions. And is guilty on many counts. Deep ecumenism comes as a welcome answer to those divisions caused by religion.
So my call to you on this Ecumenical Sunday is to do the hard work of appreciating others in other religions. Alone and sequestered, we cannot fix these deep divisions in our world, divided largely on religious and ideological grounds. Deep divisions call for deep collaboration, particularly among religious groups. And deep divides call for deep ecumenism that does not hole up in exclusive bunkers of belief, but welcomes and embraces the best in all. Let us, like Christ, make room for others, and be called repairers of the breach.
You shall do greater works than these, Jesus says. Your practice of deep ecumenism part of that greater work. Let’s get to it! Amen.
56 Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
2 Happy is the mortal who does this,
the one who holds it fast,
who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it,
and refrains from doing any evil.
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.[a]
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes[a] it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words. 20 Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” 21 Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”