By Rebecca Hale
Eastwood Christian Church, Nashville
July 21, 2013
This gospel story is about food, community, what it means for there to be enough, and about ALL being cared for body and spirit!
Text before sermon: Matthew 14:13-21
This past week I was at the Disciples General Assembly in Orlando Florida. Two years ago the assembly was in Nashville and a fair number of you attended. Every two years a call goes out to Disciples all over the country and even around the world to gather for worship, learning, and business. Usually around 4,000-6,000 respond and it is often described as a great big family reunion. Lots of time and frankly resources go into planning the event so that the welcome might be wide and the experience fruitful.
To be honest, lately I have been wondering if the GA is anachronistic and maybe even wasteful. It’s expensive, so not everyone can come. Many folks spend lots of hours planning the event, couldn’t these resources that be better spent on mission? Sometimes it seems like the folks who come are really the church managers – the true believers - who are already committed and not really those folks who are on the creative, emerging edges. (Aside – you know I could only preach this sermon at my home congregation, where I can trust you not to share with my boss!)
Also rumbling around in the back of my mind is a question about why we need anything beyond the local church. Why do we need a larger denomination? Plenty of people have noted that we live in a post-denominational era when few people choose their local church affiliation based on some denominational loyalty. Don’t we as a local church community have enough to do right here in East Nashville, for instance, without worrying about being connected to church across the state, country or even the world? We ask, “what relevance does that connection have for us and how does it help us be more faithful to what God has called us to do?” And we are voting with our wallets, quite frankly starving the church beyond the local. We are also voting with our time, how many of us see the need for serving on a regional or general church board or committee?
With those thoughts I came to last week’s General Assembly, that family reunion, and this is what I encountered. Two stories I want to share with you.
First up was Resolution #1327 Becoming a Church of Grace and Welcome a business item whose intent was to publically urge Disciples to welcome into our congregations and other ministries all who seek Christ. The “therefore” sections of the resolution read:
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly meeting in Orlando, Florida, July 13-17, 2013, calls upon the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to recognize itself as striving to become a people of grace and welcome to all God’s children though differing in race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but we celebrate that all are part of God’s good creation; and
FINALLY, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, to acknowledge their support for the welcome of and hospitality to all.
This resolution calls to our roots reminding Disciples that we do not bar the church door or fence the table from those who desire the embrace of God's love. That said, not all Disciples agree (imagine that!) and this resolution had Facebook and twitter and the blogosphere ablaze for months with pronouncements about this being either an embrace or an abdication of scripture – depending on the writer’s perspective. There has been real fear that this would split the church with some leaving depending on which way the vote went and that might yet be the case.
Given all of that, it was also evident that most were trying very hard to engage this resolution with care and love and to hold each other gently. There were genuine attempts to claim one’s own ground while allowing others to do the same. A World Café conversation had people sitting knee to knee trying to see with the eyes of each other. A wonderful address by Sandhya Jha reminded us that the saying, “you can either be right or be in relationship” is inadequate to hard discussion because it is “right relationship” we are called to strive towards.
Glen Miles, pastor of Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City preaching before the vote on the resolution used the text I used this morning and said, “All means All” – what is important in this text is not which ones got fed but who got fed – all were fed! All are welcome, all are creations of God! A prophetic and passionate word – all means all!
Jess and I attended the GLAD banquet (Gay and Lesbian Affiliated Disciples) and heard former Tennessee Regional Minister and former General Minister and President Dick Hamm remind those gathered that we are not called to right doctrine but right relationship – right loving and honoring of one another.
The vote was taken and the resolution passed by a wide margin. As I walked out of the voting hall there at a table, heads bowed in intent conversation where two of the most vocal pastors in the debate about the resolution talking with one another. One who felt his church had just moved without him and now not sure if there is still a place for him. The other certain the church had finally righted a great wrong and had now said a word of welcome to many who felt like they had been standing at the door and knocking for a long time. Heads nearly touching each other, trying to see and meet each other’s hearts at this sensitive moment.
That is what it means to be a Disciple and as our General Minister and President wrote following the vote:
“My deepest hope is that, in the coming weeks and months, with God's help, we will continue in worship and mission together even when we profoundly disagree - as we have so often done before - recognizing that it is God's covenant of love that binds us to God and to one another in Christ. United though not uniform, diverse but not divided, let us name our differences, then claim our common calling to be and to share the good news of Jesus Christ who came "that the world might be saved". (John 3:17)”
Second story. You know what happened a week ago Saturday, right? Literally just down the road from the convention center in Orlando is Stanford Florida where the George Zimmerman trial verdict was set to be announced. Zimmerman on trial for the murder of Travon Martin, a young black man, in a case that has captivated the nation. Issues related to race, racial profiling, systemic prejudice, and gun violence were all present and needing to be talked about.
In the same convention center where we gathered as Disciples was the national convention of the NAACP. We were sharing hotels, elevators and convention spaces when the verdict came down. Not guilty. Not guilty.
A Disciples General Assembly, a gathering of people who claim to strive to be an anti-racist pro-reconciling church a people of true community with a passion for justice sitting on the doorstep of this historic moment.
When that verdict came down, every person of color in the room wondered if their children were safe on the streets of their cities and towns. They wondered what they should say to their children about walking home from school, to work, to church.
We all felt a sense of “Can’t we do better? Can’t we be better?” Surely we want to live in a world where children are not at risk because of the color of their skin.
An emergency resolution was introduced and passed handily calling for our General Minister to work ecumenically to support an inquiry into the case and to share the words she shared in worship that evening more broadly. Here is what Dr. Watkins shared:
Something happened in the Zimmerman verdict that affects us all.
In this gathering tonight we may not have the same opinions on what probably happened that night
But we are a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church.
Anti-racism says we have to suspect that racism and profiling was involved and is involved.
There’s something about guns here, too; something about a culture of violence and death that believes what’s mine is worth more than your life.
That culture of violence affects us all.
Pro-reconciliation says we have to reach for a better place.
Our preacher last night told us – not to act out of fear.
Our preacher this morning told us that we, like the original disciples, can come across demons that can only come out through prayer.
Not easy prayer-like words, but deep communion with God to where God breathes through us and acts through us.
An eight year old boy in the midst of all of this, the son of a Disciples pastor, an African American child, asked his mother, will this happen to me??
That child is our child –This affects us all.
The next day a sizable group of Disciples were invited to join with the NAACP as they talked about this case. The president of the NAACP joined the Disciples in worship and together we stood to name systemic racism as an ongoing issue in our society, our legislative processes, and in our church. And Disciples we recommitted ourselves to this struggle to dismantle systems of race prejudice plus power that lead to such tragic events.
Two stories that speak to the heart of who we are as Disciples. Two stories standing as symbols to who we are called to be as God’s people.
A symbol serves as a sign, pointing to something beyond itself. A symbol is also a taste of, an experience of, the reality of that something beyond and a symbol is an instrument, a way of bringing that reality to life.
The scripture text we read this morning, the feeding of the multitudes is a sign pointing to a reality in which ALL God’s people have enough, are fed, cared for and held in community. It is also a taste of what that will be like, bread and fish passed, shared, stretched, made into enough to satisfy every belly. Every person there got a taste of the community of God. And those gathered became a way of experiencing that community (communion), an instrument, for one another and for the world.
These two stories of our Disciples gathering stand as symbol for us. They point to a rich hope of a community of grace and welcome where all does indeed mean all. The experience of conversation, debate and accompanying one another in a quest for justice at assembly is also a bit of a taste of God’s hope for the world. Our attempts to really hear each other, stay at the table with one another even when we disagree and our tries at taking away any barriers to full inclusion are a taste of the kind of community God dreams about. By our actions and our accompaniment of one another into the creation of a more just community we become God’s communion, a community of sharing in the world and instruments in bringing about the reign of God. We are indeed God’s hope for a new community.
Last week, as Disciples, we pointed to God’s hope for the world and participated in that hope just a bit, tasting what God’s good society can be like and we became the very body of God for and in the world.
God’s community is a reality that we cannot experience with out each other. We need each other across the whole church with our diverse voices, experiences, and passions or order to taste what God’s dream for the world is. It is by gathering with each other, in General Assembly, in missional activity caring for God’s beloved world, and in common statements across our diversity that we as God’s people can stand as a sign pointing to the emerging realm of God.
To come back to my questions about the relevancy of General Assemblies and of gathering as a denominational body – indeed being church beyond the local, maybe it is enough of an argument for looking beyond local life together that in our broader life we stand as a symbol of the extravagant feast of welcome and inclusion that God wishes to set for all and that on occasion in our life with one another, we are even a taste of that feast.
Let me close with the prayer that Sharon Watkins shared in worship last weekend:
Will you pray with me?
that we may be ministers of reconciliation for this broken, hurting world.
Work your miracle in us
that our words, our hands, our actions
may bear your healing power.
Work your miracle through us
that the world will know your justice and peace.
Teach us to pray the kind of prayer
that casts out the stubborn demons,
the ones that dwell deep within
and refuse to set us free.
Teach us to pray the kind of prayer
that defeats hatred by the power of love, that overwhelms suspicion with compassion and confidence in your loving care, the kind of prayer that brings life from death and hope from despair.
Teach us to pray the kind of prayer
that brings us into your heart of justice and the joy of your abundance and love.
Make us ministers of your reconciliation, bearers of justice and love.
In the name of Jesus,
who reconciles the world to you.