“A Feast of Unity” January 20, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw
Epiphany 3, Year C
Readings: Micah 6:6-8; Psalm 133; (1 Corinthians 12:1–11); John 2:1–11
The church in Johannesburg was warm. It was fall there when I visited, but it wasn’t just that. The people were warm. Maybe it was my host, who has worshipped there most of his life, and is well known and respected throughout the city. But I don’t think it was only that. They are just warm people. Their accents were wonderful, and everything felt very familiar in worship even though I was so far from home. I was even asked to say a few words.
A week later, on the way home from Africa, the church in Amsterdam was cold. It was a raw spring day there, true, and I had become used to African temperatures. But it wasn’t just that. First, the ushers weren’t going to let me in. There was an exhibit of photos hanging on the walls of the church, but visitors to the exhibit were not allowed in until after the service. When I got in, I discovered that the building wasn’t heated. The floor consisted of worn stones covering graves six, seven hundred years old. The service was in Dutch. And it seemed very long when I could understand almost nothing. Finally we all moved from the massive body of the church up into the huge choir loft for communion. When I went to walk I discovered my legs were stiff from the cold. The person beside me showed me how it worked as the bread and cup came along the row. No one asked me to speak during the service that day, luckily, because I don’t think I could have managed it through chattering teeth. There was wonderful coffee afterwards. That and some good conversation warmed me up at last.
You have had your own experiences of different kinds of churches, different kinds of Christians. Wouldn’t it be wonderful simply to listen to stories about the places we have worshipped, the many people of faith we have known. Perhaps another year we’ll do that.
What do we have in common, all us Christians? What unity do we have with Orthodox Christians in Russia as the President plays on nostalgia, and uses the church to try to give him legitimacy? What is our bond with Christians on low lying Pacific islands where the waters are gradually rising? They are leaving home and moving to Australia, many of them, as island life becomes more and more risky, and there aren’t enough jobs for their young people. How can we be in solidarity with Dalit Christians who put together so much of our service today? They struggle with a pervasive, stubborn class structure.
It is pleasant when we get along–“dwell together in unity,” as the psalmist puts it. Real unity is deeper than pleasantries, of course. Unity doesn’t happen because everyone puts on their best smile and works to be polite and agreeable. Christians across the world agree on a few things and disagree on so many. Congregations sometimes struggle for unity. Families. Couples. Unity is not consensus, though. It is not one voice, one opinion, one response to the good news of Jesus Christ to which we must all consent. Unity is a feast, a feast with several courses: justice, first, then kindness, then humility, as the prophet knew so long ago. Our unity with First Nations congregations is strained as long as the hangover from colonialism and oppression persist. Our oneness with very conservative Christians is limited as long cruelty towards others for their sex or orientation goes on. No justice yet. We may be less open to people around us who are different somehow. Not enough kindness. Our solidarity with anyone is at risk as long as we harbour feelings of superiority. Not enough humility. Justice, kindness, humility: they are all needed in their different ways.
Does unity depend on familiarity? There are over two billion of us Christian, so it better not. There are many, many expressions of the faith with which we will never be familiar, many sisters and brothers in the faith we will never meet. I heard a story recently from Reena Singha, a friend of this congregation. She was attending a Christian arts festival in a city in southeastern China. Other participants were local, from a rural part of the province. Apparently they only use their legs to get places, so they walked up and down the endless tall hills in that part of the world all the way to the event and back. At the festival, they sang the Hallelujah chorus. Their ancestors had been taught the whole thing by a missionary generations before, and they had preserved it, this noble, rousing oratorio written in England by a displaced German composer and first performed in Ireland. Now it came to life a world away, sung by people who spoke Mandarin. So many strange and wonderful stories we will never know, stories of heroism, selflessness, determination and goodness inspired by the story of Jesus Christ.
What to do. Remember all those millions you have never met, whose joys and trials we can barely imagine, in your prayers. Pray that they may have both strength and grace for their struggles for respect in a class-based society, say, care for children orphaned by AIDS in societies where sexuality is repressed, or climate justice where rising tides are changing ways of life that go back many millennia. Work for unity with the sisters and brothers God has given closer at hand, where we might be able to live out the words of the prophet. We already have the table and everything else we might need. Now we need to prepare a feast within us. No, scratch that. We need to let the holy mystery of Love prepare a feast within us. Maybe there are some side dishes, but the main courses are the ones Micah laid out so long ago: justice, kindness and humility.
And for the wine? We have this vintage that is always having its best year, always ready to light up faces and turn an ordinary event into a party. There’s even a story about him and wine involving the ordinary and the out of the ordinary. This cup is heady stuff, intoxicating but with no nasty after effects. But it comes with a warning on the label. This feast can get you into trouble with people who don’t go for justice, or kindness, or humility. When you eat and drink here, you are Dalit, you are First Nations, you are finding sea water rising higher and higher into your home, your business, your whole land. You are putting yourself in the place of those with whom you may have clashed, seeking to see the world from their point of view. If you come to feast here anyway, despite the risks, you go away changed, transformed, perhaps with a certain famous chorus running through your head.