(Preached at Episcopal Church of the Advent, Logan Square, on the annual occasion of our ecumenical summer worship service.)
In the name of Christ, our sovereign. Amen.
It’s good to be together this morning. Our congregations have been sharing mission and ministry for decades now, gathering at least twice a year for worship at the peak of summer near Independence Day, then again in late November near Thanksgiving. Always around these two national holidays.
Ecumenical ministry and worship is something we all pretty much take for granted these days, but that wasn’t always the case. My mother, who was raised in Boston as an Irish Catholic during the Kennedy years, remembers hearing that the Lutherans were stockpiling bombs in their church basements. Lutherans were, in many parts of the country, synonymous with Germans, and in the post-WWII-era there was still plenty of suspicion and hostility against Germans floating around. This is why so many American flags popped up in Lutheran sanctuaries in the 1940s and 50s.
No, these days denominational difference — at least within the mainline Protestant church — is mostly treated as a matter of preference, not of substance. Decades of full communion agreements between Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists and others have followed, not coincidentally, the assimilation of many ethnic immigrant communities into the fabric of national life. So, if for this reason alone, the fact that we gather around the 4th of July and Thanksgiving Day actually follows a certain logic.
As we were planning for this morning’s worship, I shared with Father Peter that St. Luke’s is in the middle of a preaching series this summer and asked if I might continue it here with you today. The Revised Common Lectionary provides two tracks of readings during the season of ordinary time after Pentecost — the thematic readings and the semi-continuous ones. The thematic series, which you’ve been following here at Advent, pairs the Old Testament reading with the Gospel reading so that the former intentionally prefigures or reinforces the latter. The semi-continuous series, which we’ve been following at St. Luke’s, disconnects the Old Testament reading from the assigned Gospel reading. Instead, each year, it follows one of the major narrative arcs from Hebrew scripture. This year it traces out the story of the rise and fall of the nation of Israel and the house of David found in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings.
It’s a story in three acts, and we’ve just come to the beginning of Act Two. In the previous act, the people of God petitioned the prophet Samuel for a king. God warns that this desire to be ruled will lead to all kinds of suffering, but relents and gives the people what they ask for. Saul is anointed king over Israel, and things quickly fall apart. The boy shepherd David is introduced as an unlikely underdog of a political opponent — yet, as the one chosen by God, his star rises without fail as Saul’s diminishes. At the close of Act One, Saul and his son Jonathan lie dead on the battlefield and David is poised to become king.
During last week’s worship, St. Luke’s heard the song of lament David sang for his fallen king and his beloved Jonathan. To move from that text to the one for this morning, in which Israel joins Judah in making David their king, is sort of misleading. It’s a kind of amnesia, glossing over the painful past to lay the groundwork for a unified future. You see, David didn’t immediately become king over all Israel and Judah immediately after Saul’s death. For seven years Israel and Judah were locked in civil war, a battle between the houses of David and Saul. While the southern tribes of Judah had moved immediately to make David their king, the northern tribes of Israel were ruled by Saul’s military commander, Abner, who used Saul’s weak-willed son, Ishbaal, as a puppet to take control of the north.
As we enter into the story this morning the tribes of Judah and Israel are weary of war and long to be united under a strong king. They are ready to forget the past and begin building a future together. The leaders of the tribes of Israel come to David in Hebron in the south, where he has been ruling until this point, and they appeal to him on the basis of their common ancestry. “Look,” they say, “we are your bone and flesh.”
Don’t you wish we could remember that before we launch into our wars, civil and uncivil? Whether we are at war other nations, are caught up in religious or corporate power struggles, or are simply fighting with our neighbors — even our friends and families — a time will come when the battle is over and we will be left to make peace and forge a new future, when we will have to look in the eyes of our former enemies and say, “look, we are your bone and flesh.” Wouldn’t it go so much better for us all if we could remember that at the outset?
Within the family of Christianity, the ecumenical movement is a funny thing. Again, we in the mainline Protestant church basically take it for granted that the schisms that ripped Europe apart in the 16th century are essentially resolved. We forget that Luther was branded a heretic and that, for a time while he fled from Rome with a death sentence on his head, it was illegal for anyone in Germany to provide him with food or shelter. Fifty years later, Pope Pius V declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic and “released all of her subjects from any allegiance to her and excommunicated any who obeyed her orders.”
The battles that divide the church have been bloody and, as in the time of David, these conflicts have always been about more than who carries the God-anointed truth — they are about nation building and ethnic identity. Religion, nation, and ethnic tribe have always been inseparable elements of our collective stories.
In his commentary on this passage from 2 Samuel, Tony Cartledge — a Baptist scholar — writes,
“The kingdom of God, as represented by the community of faith, is far from united. We make far more of our differences — even within individual denominations and churches — than we do of our common ties. Our differences may be theological, methodological, ecclesiastical, or cultural. Though we are bound by a common faith in Christ and by a common call to share Christ’s love, our tendency is to allow our differences to overshadow common cause. Instead of celebrating diversity and allowing it to empower growth, we often fail to fellowship or work together with those whose gender, creed, culture, or worship style fall outside the lines we have drawn.”
However, we are living in a time of incredible transformation, a time in which the lines that divide us are being redrawn — some disappearing as others become more deeply etched. In a recent article on the Huffington Post, David Lose, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota asked if Christian denominations have a future. He gives five reasons why he suspects denominations may have seen their day, including:
- How confusing denominations are in an increasingly non-Christian and religiously unaffiliated society.
- The relatively minor and difficult to communicate theological difference between Christian denominations.
- The inordinate expense of maintaining the same number of seminaries, publishing houses, and denominational organizations when there aren’t as many people to support them and those who remain have fewer means with which to do so.
But it’s the last two that I find most interesting in light of today’s story from 2 Samuel. Lose writes,
4) Political differences outstripped theological ones decades ago. Let’s face it: progressive Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Episcopal congregations have a lot more in common than do progressive and conservative congregations in the same tradition. Differences over how to read the Bible, the nature of the atonement, and the character of God are far more important today than nuanced differences in polity or regarding the sacraments.
5) Denominational affiliation often represents the triumph of ethnic and cultural loyalties over theological convictions. While denominations may have initially arisen over theological differences, they were soon co-opted be the political realities of their sponsoring state. Little wonder, then, that ethnic and cultural identity is closely tied to denominational affiliation. Those in the club, after all, talk not simply of Presbyterians and Lutherans but Scotch Presbyterians and Swedish or German Lutherans [and I might add Irish Catholics and Mayflower Anglicans]. This has always made it difficult to reach beyond one’s ethnic enclave because interested seekers, even if they were attracted to, for instance, Lutheran theology, had to accept it in the form of German chorales or Swedish traditions. Moreover, as ethnic culture has declined as an important identity-maker, so also has religious affiliation — after all, for many folks, if Lutheranism isn’t about Santa Lucia, what is it about? And if they’ve stopped going to the Santa Lucia festival, why bother with church?
Dear people of St. Luke’s and Church of the Advent, these are actually very important questions for us to be wrestling with — and, most likely, we should be wrestling with them together. As congregations who both once boasted of membership rolls far more robust than we presently enjoy; who are both experiencing some measure of revitalization and new growth; and who find ourselves increasingly surrounded by a society apathetic, or even hostile, to our presence; we must learn from the lessons of our past. Those we mistrust, those we resent, those we even perhaps envy, will one day be sitting with us at the end of a long, bloody, civil (or uncivil) war and one of us will be saying to the other, “look, we are your flesh and bone.”
Here’s how my mother became a Lutheran. She ended up going to a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Fremont, Nebraska on a vocal scholarship where she met my dad (a Congregationalist). When the choir went on its annual tour, they would perform in churches and before each concert they would have a brief prayer service and would take communion together. Raised Catholic, my mother had been taught to refrain from taking the sacraments outside the Roman Catholic church. Although she deeply loved the choir, being unable to share that meal felt like not really being a part of that community. In the end, she took the communion and she joined the Lutheran church.
It hasn’t been too difficult for us to get together like this, twice a year, to share the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and to renew our long friendship. I wonder though, who else might be invited? When we consider that religious difference has always been tied to national identity and ethnic tribe, who else belongs at the table with us when we break the bread of life and drink the cup of salvation? Despite our differences, and the lines that divide us, there is something in us — I think it is most likely the image of God, like calling unto like — that draws us back together again. One day we will all be looking at each other across the table saying, “look, we are your bone and flesh.”
Why not today?