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Posts Tagged ‘unity’

World Communion Sunday

My congregation went high-tech yesterday for World Communion Sunday as we viewed a video of street musicians from all over the world performing the song “Stand By Me.”  Visit www.playingforchange.com to learn more about the folks who produced this video and watch it again here. .

Special thanks to my friend Elizabeth Michael for writing me a beautiful email from South Africa this week that became a major illustration in my sermon. It’s good to have preacher friends from whom you can “borrow.”  What follows is the sermon from World Communion Sunday.

“Serving and Being Served”

Acts 2: 43-47

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 3rd, 2010 – World Communion Sunday

You have always been so kind to oblige my creative and sometimes crazy ideas here in worship.  A few World Communion Sundays ago, I decided to change things up a bit and have you serve each other in the pews by passing baskets full of broken bread and little pottery cups of juice in which you would dip your bread.  I thought the idea was a liturgical masterpiece.  One of you described it as a disaster waiting to happen.  Which, I will admit, it was.  When I first thought of the idea, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to hold, and pass, and dip and serve, without spilling bread and juice all over the sanctuary carpet.  But you were patient and willing and careful and so it worked.  It remains my most favorite World Communion Sunday memory because it beautifully symbolized what Holy Communion and community are all about….serving and being served.

In our scripture passage for today we are reminded of the ideal to which all Christian communities strive.  Acts 2 describes a community of faith in which all things were held in common.  They shared everything.  No one would go without because whenever someone was in need someone was quickly there with a loaf of bread, or a cup of juice, or a little extra cash, or an offer to care for the children so some much-needed work could get done.  It was a community that sought the goodwill of all people by serving and being served.  It was Holy Communion that saved people each and every day.

Today, our understanding of Christian community has grown.  No longer are we a small group of apostles with a handful of followers gathering in a single home.  Now we are a global community that stretches from one end of the earth to the other.  In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  In today’s global community, these words ring true and remind us of the power of God’s love to find us and know us no matter where in the world we might go.

Many of you know and remember my pastor friend, Elizabeth Michael, who has been here a couple of times to preach.  Recently Elizabeth was offered a wonderful honor to be the guest preacher for the General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa.  A few years ago, before Elizabeth graduated from seminary, she spent a summer internship serving a Presbyterian Church in Johannesburg, South Africa and apparently Elizabeth made a good impression, because when the pastor of that church was elected the new moderator of their South African denomination, he invited Elizabeth to be their preacher for their week-long assembly.

Over the past year or so Elizabeth and I have been talking about this series of sermons she would preach.  As you might imagine, the whole thing made her incredibly anxious as she struggled to discern what to preach, how to preach, and how she might speak a relevant and inspiring word to brothers and sisters in the faith, yes, but brothers and sisters who live in a completely different culture, with different issues and different desires.

Well, Elizabeth just returned from this fantastic trip and while she was there she managed to send me an email describing her experience.  I want to share with you a little of what she wrote.  Elizabeth writes, “I am here as a guest of my friend George Marchinkowski, who on Saturday was installed as the moderator of the General Assembly.  I feel like a White House intern who has stumbled into the Oval Office and been invited to stay for a week!  The moderator is a highly esteemed position here, complete with fancy robes, a huge ring, and plenty of pomp and circumstance—there are actually a few people who bow or curtsy each time he enters the assembly hall!  Like the president at the State of the Union, the moderator is announced before entering the hall for each session, and people stand and wait for him and his party to process in.  You would all laugh (I laugh myself!) to see me processing in with the five most prestigious people of this denomination.  (Don’t worry…so far no one is bowing or curtsying when I enter a room!)

“Today was the third day of the assembly,” Elizabeth continues, “but only the first of the five mornings that I will preach.  I think the sermon went ok today…but I still have great anxiety about the task.  One of the greatest gifts of my time here [though] has been getting to know one particular minister and former moderator of the assembly.  His name is Rod Botsis, and he is a wise and kind pastor from Cape Town.  He is serving as the moderator’s chaplain for the next two years, which means he is there to assist George in whatever he needs.  Thankfully, one of his responsibilities is also to care for me!  He has assisted me in planning the worship services (prays the most beautiful prayers I have ever heard) and has waited on me hand and foot, bringing me tea in the mornings and leaving small presents at my dinner place along with notes of great encouragement.  I am so humbled to watch a person of such power and influence [in this country] behave as such a humble servant.  Rod is just one of many examples of the way I have been met with overwhelming hospitality and graciousness.  This whole experience has reminded me of the verse from Ephesians, where the author prays that the recipients might ‘have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, just how high and wide and deep and long’ the love of God is.”

In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north.  Our understanding of Christian community has grown.  We are a global community, extending God’s love from one end of the earth to the other.  We are a global community that gathers Sunday in and Sunday out in order to serve and be served.

I mentioned earlier that the World Communion Sunday when I asked you to pass and hold and dip in such treacherous fashion was one of my most favorite communion memories.  I won’t do it to you again, I promise, but it did work because it forced all of us to slow down, to take care in passing the elements, and to help each other out.  We lived out our calling to serve and be served in that one single meal together.

I distinctly remember sitting and watching you all passing the bread and the little, slippery cups of juice, and (I’m going to pick on BP here) for some reason poor Brandon got both the basket of bread and the cup of juice at the same time.  With both hands full it wasn’t possible for Brandon to dip and eat.  So what does Brandon do?  He looks up, and just loud enough for the people around him to hear, he says, “Help!”

And within an instant helping hands arrived, hands of grace, hands of love, hands of humble servants ready to help Brandon eat and drink.  The communion service continued (without a hitch) and we were all reminded of our Christian calling to serve and be served in a place and a community where the risen Christ is close enough to taste.

World Communion Sunday is a wonderful occasion reminding all of us how far God’s love stretches.  World Communion Sunday is also a wonderful reminder of our Christian call to service and our Christian call to community where we will be served by a living Christ embodied in hands that offer us love and hope in the form of bread and juice.

Now to the God who unites all of us in this fellowship of love, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

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Unity?

I just finished reading “Follow Me”:  A History of Christian Intentionality by Ivan Kauffman.  I’m writing a review of it for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.  Basically Kaufmann is calling for more unity among what he calls ‘Institutional Christians’ and ‘Intentional Christians.’  Institutional Christians value the integrity of the Church, church unity, doctrines, tradition, sacraments and authority.  Intentional Christians value individual conversion experiences, interior spirituality, piety, and freedom of worship.  Mostly I think Kaufmann’s distinctions are too broad and facile and that the two groups overlap and interact more than he suggests.[1] But it got me thinking again about the struggle for Christian unity.  Too often we think about ecumenism in terms of Lutherans and Catholics agreeing on this or that bit of doctrine or Presbyterians and Congregationalists acknowledging the validity of each other’s sacraments and ordination.  The more difficult discussions and the deeper disunity lie between liberals and conservatives, spiritualists and naturalists, Pentecostals and modernists, neo-evangelicals and liberationists.  These divisions make me wonder about the very possibility of Christian unity and even make me search my soul about whether I truly want it.


[1] Kauffman does give some interesting historical examples and the book does have its strengths, which I will certainly note in the full review.

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Jesus’ Prayer: John 17: 20-26

I am having a great time at the Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN.  I heard a really inspiring sermon last night from Bishop Vashti McKenzie in which she reminded us preachers of our prophetic job to speak truth to power.  Do not preach to be blessed, she said. Preach to be a blessing.  We preachers need conferences like this to remind us of these important truths and to get our preaching fires burning again.

What follows is the sermon from Sunday, May 16th, the seventh Sunday of Easter.

“Jesus’ Prayer”

John 17: 20-26

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

May 16th, 2010

I have often described the moment right before and right after a person dies as “a thin place”[1] or a place where the veil between our world and God’s world is very thin.  The beauty of this “thin place” can be experienced not only in the weight and clarity of God’s presence, but also in the significance of the moment as meaningful last words are shared. Families who have a chance to talk and share words with a loved one before they die recognize this time as a gift.  And so, more often than not, this valuable time, this gift, is taken advantage of as families speak of what is most important to them before death arrives and goodbyes have to be said.

The context for today’s scripture passage from the Gospel of John is that the hour of Jesus’ death is fast approaching.  It is the night before Jesus’ death and so his every word and action holds special meaning.  How will Jesus spend these final few hours?  What will he do?  What will he say?  What is so important to Jesus as to be shared here at the end?  In the two chapters preceding today’s scripture, Jesus has been frantically teaching his disciples everything they will need to know to carry on his ministry without him.  He covers and recovers topics that to him are of the utmost importance.  And then, at the end of this period of instruction, Jesus pauses, looks up to heaven, and begins to pray…

“May they all be one,” Jesus prays.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…may they be one, as we are one.” Yes, the unity of the Christian community was of the utmost importance for Jesus.  It was so important to Jesus that he used some of his final breaths as a living person to pray for it.  But is it important to us?  Is what was of the utmost importance to Jesus of the utmost importance to us?

There are lots of things that divide us as Christians.  We have different theologies, different opinions, different worship styles, different tastes, different geographies, different cultures, different prejudice, different sins.  We Christians are a broad and diverse people who are typically more comfortable highlighting how we are different than how we are one.

Illustrating this fact, folk singer David Lamotte describes an encounter with a fellow Christian we might all know too well.  He sings:

The old man asked me if I was saved

So I turned to check his eyes

Well I didn’t see any concern there

And it’s sad that I wasn’t surprised

No, he was just trying the secret handshake

Where you push until push comes to shove

His hands were deep in his pockets

And his eyes said nothing of love[2]

Yes, too often Christians getting together can feel like two boxers sizing each other up before the big fight.  Our divisions run so deep we don’t expect to get along, and so we don’t even try.  Our disagreements have become so painful, that we shrug off the hard work of reconciliation telling ourselves it’s not really all that important, telling ourselves it’s not really even possible.

But, in the face of all this despair and disillusionment and disunity, in the midst of the fog of doubt and fear and hate that has settled on our hearts, we can still faintly hear the voice of a man offering up a prayer before he dies.  We can still hear Jesus pray, “Let them be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us.”

Jesus’ prayer is that we would have the same unity with one another that he has with God, the Father.  Now let’s linger with this point for a minute.  We often pass over this theological point too quickly.  But if we are going to have any hope of being one as Christ is one with the Father, then we’ll have to understand something about how Christ and the Father are one.

First, we remember that we’re talking about two distinct persons.  Jesus and God are not just interchangeable words that describe the same person.  God is the one who created and sustains the world.  Jesus is the one who lived as a human and through whom God is redeeming the world.  They have their own functions and separate personalities. Yet we say that, even though they are distinct, they are also one.  How can that be?  Well, one way to describe it is that these two, Christ and the Father, are so perfectly related to one another that they are like one.  The perfect relationship that these two share is at the very core of their being. Their perfect relationship defines who they are as individual persons.  They have always had this perfect relationship and everything they do flows out of this perfect relationship.

And it is this – this perfect relationship – that Jesus desires that you and I will have with one another.  Jesus’ prayer is that you and I and Christians across the globe have the same perfect relationship with one another that Jesus has with God, the Father.   Jesus wants us to be so perfectly related to one another that WE become as one.  He wants us to realize that the core truth about us is not that we are different.  The core truth about us is not that we are disjointed and disunited.  The core truth about us is that we are one – that we CAN BE and in some ways (by the grace of God) already are perfectly related to one another as Christ is to God.

One of my favorite stories to share is of the rabbi who once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.  “Could it be,” asked one of his students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” answered the Rabbi.

“Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.

“It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother.  Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”[3]

“May they all be one,” Jesus prays.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…may they be one, as we are one.” Yes, we are different.  Yes, God created us as distinct individuals.  But this is not what defines us.  This is not ultimately who we are.  We are one, just as Christ and the Father are one.  This is the core truth of our being.  This is the core truth that Jesus wants us so desperately to know.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”[4]

We are all already one in Christ Jesus our Lord.  By his prayer, Christ invites us, once again, to participate in this reality.

Will you be the answer to Jesus’ prayer?

Now to the God of all grace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Celtic Christians use this term “thin place” to refer to a natural place of beauty where the veil between our world and God’s world is very thin.

[2] David Lamotte, “Butler Street” from the album Hard Earned Smile

[3] Hasidic Tale, quoted in Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life, by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, (Scribner, New York, NY, 1996), pg.502.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.

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Jesus’ Prayer

We put effort into the things that are important to us.  But what about the things that are important to Jesus?  This Sunday’s scripture passage from the Gospel of John concludes a long section where Jesus has been frantically teaching his disciples everything they will need to know after he is dead.  The hour of his death is fast approaching and Jesus is trying to pack as much as possible into these final hours.  Then, at the end of this valuable and intense period of instruction, Jesus pauses, looks up to heaven, and begins to pray.

And what does Jesus pray for?  What is so important to Jesus that he will use some of his final breaths as a living person to ask for it?  In the midst of his final hours Jesus prays, “that they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…may they be one, as we are one.”

There are lots of things that divide us as Christians.  We have different theologies, different opinions, different worship styles, different tastes, different geographies, different cultures, different prejudice, different sins.  We Christians are a broad and diverse people.  Therefore we are bound to have differences and to experience division.  But we do hold one thing in common.  We do hold Christ in common.  And if Christ is really important to us, if what is important to Christ is important to us, then we must put effort into overcoming our differences and divisions.

In our consumeristic culture it’s pretty easy to get around the hard work of overcoming our differences for the sake of unity in Christ.  We shop for the church and the Christians who are the best fit for us.  And usually this translates into the church and the Christians who are most like us, in theology, in opinion, in taste, even perhaps in prejudice and sin.  And if something were to happen in that church, if differences arise or division ensues, then we simply shop for another church that might better suit our needs.  The hard work of reconciliation is pretty easy to avoid in today’s social climate.

But if we are going to claim the title, “Christian,” then Jesus’ prayer must be our prayer and Jesus’ work our work.  Jesus built bridges.  He didn’t burn them.  Jesus reached out to those who were different.  He didn’t avoid them.  May we do the same as we seek to live lives of faithful Christian discipleship in today’s diverse and different world.

May the words of my mouth, the meditations of my mind, and the feelings of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

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