Beyond Christian Unity

Texts: Nehemiah 8, Luke 4

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is over again. So is World Religions Day. That’s it for another year, eh? It’s a bit like the Christmas spirit too soon past.

The World Council of Churches (WCC) 70th anniversary logo at our door, and prayers this week from, for, and with Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Western Sahara, Tunisia, remind us of a movement 560 million strong. Add the 1 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church claims over 1B members, and the Pentecostals and ‘new’ churches a third of all humanity is nominally Christian.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is not aiming for uniformity or unanimity. Such reduction to a ‘lowest common denominator’ or ‘Judeo-Christian ethos’ would smack of the old ways: imperialist and colonial missions. God forbid!

Perhaps a century ago, the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference, or the founders of the United Church of Canada, sought cultural hegemony through one united and uniting Eurocentric church. Since our 1968 union with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) and 1971 Plan of Union with the Anglicans, we’ve dropped talks with the Disciples of Christ, and become a bit sectarian.

We noticed last week that we are surrounded by gifted young white clergymen: Pr. Sebastian at St Matthews, Fr. Tobey at St Mary’s, Mark at St Peter’s, Rev Greg Smith at St Andrew’s, and now Sebastian newly inducted at St John’s Anglican. Jesus is doing fine in downtown Kitchener. What’s our ‘brand’ or ‘USP’ (unique selling point)? Progressive modern liberals worship novelty!

I argue we are newly sectarian in the United Church, and at Trinity, bearing witness to our peculiar truth from our particular gifts and perspective. What is our job, or the job for a Trinity pastor after me, without claiming too much, or too little, as a ministry and mission in 2019? Do we really want everybody to join us?

What if all were like us? What if we disappeared: what would be lost?

So the Transition Team’s staffing report is out this morning, along with the Annual Reports for last year, and the new edition of our newsletter. They are all online at www.trinityunitedkw.ca, before a February 10 congregational meeting.

My newsletter note reflects on the hoarding around a vacant lot at 74 Frederick. One editor thought ‘hoarding’ was an error of diction, and I pointed out a similar dual meaning to ‘investment’, which originally meant committing to siege in war.

If we are not centred around one shared set of propositional beliefs, or common physical shrine, or mighty leader, then how will we rally? We heard two stories of scripture being read in public worship, with a sort of endless mirror effect – since we are not the first generation to face this dilemma.

Nehemiah 8 told of a big day 500 years before Jesus. The rebuilding of Jerusalem, its walls and its temple, was slow even after Persian permission. Cyrus, then Darius, said they could build something like a Schwaben Club here. Neighbours conspired to alarm the Persians with rumours of political rebellion.

The people who had stayed behind in the land, and the exiles who chose to return to their homeland, were not united in language or purpose. The prophets say people took care of their own security first, building nicer homes of cedar, and eating well, as the hard times of the previous century gave way to more prosperity. Common cause or sharing fared less well.

Nehemiah, governor of the Hebrew people on behalf of Persia, calls Ezra the scribe from Babylon, south Iraq, to bring the book: Torah, prophets and writings. He wanted to remind the people who they were and whose they were, of their common roots and shared vision. He wanted to apply the old traditions to a new situation. The walls got built, and the gates hung, and it was time for ceremony.

Imagine Ezra, standing on a wooden stand in open air in a square. Picture him flanked by six elders on one side, and 7 elders on the other. Ezra starts at 6am,

and goes till noon. He probably reads in Hebrew – and the elders translated the old language into everyday Aramaic, with the help of Levites in the crowd.

It’s like church, eh? The people wept, once they got it. They realized what they had been missing, in pursuing their own interests and their divisions, instead of their shared roots and visions. But they were told to celebrate – to go feast on rich food and good wine, and to share with others who lacked.

Thus was born, I said, our traditions of Sunday brunches or Super Bowl snacks. Even fans of the Saints, robbed last week, are invited to the party.

When have you worshiped in a big open-air public crowd? If we all walked down to Speaker’s Corner a block away, what would we show and tell?

When have you heard a preacher going 6 hours, reading an old text in a language that is not your mother tongue? No wonder Ezra needed elders up front, and Levites through the crowd, to interpret!

Did you ever want to cry when you ‘got it’, and it made sense of your situation? Were you ever encouraged to go celebrate that revelation, and share? Did you?

Luke 4 tells a different story of reading scripture in assembly, preached and taught. I visualize it as a more intimate setting, a local synagogue.

This is how this gospel begins Jesus’ ministry: after John is arrested, Jesus is baptized, then tempted in the desert for 40 days. Jesus comes home to the Nazareth region, and a good report is given of him all around.

According to Luke, on the Sabbath, as was his custom, Jesus went to synagogue. They called him to the front, handed him the scroll of Isaiah, and invited him to read. He unrolled the scroll, and found a particular passage, that Luke’s gospel uses as “the gospel according to Isaiah,” to organize this version of Jesus work and teaching:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me

Because God has anointed me

To preach good news to the poor

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind

To set at liberty those who are oppressed

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord

Did the historical Jesus know how to read the Isaiah scroll, and find his place without warning? Would he have been reading Hebrew, or Aramaic Targum, or Greek Septuagint translation of scripture? Scholars differ on whether Jesus could read, and if so in what languages. Luke’s gospel doesn’t appear to care.

Jesus’ sermon is even shorter:

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your presence

Jesus sits down. You wished I would, but his life was a complete sermon, while mine (and those of all my mortal, fallible colleagues) confuses and obscures the gospel. That’s why I keep inviting you and provoking you to read scripture for yourselves, and with others, 5 or 10 minutes a day, 30 or 60 minutes a week.

What does it mean to ‘read’ scripture, or any text? It’s more than decoding ‘squiggles on scraps’. You have to figure out who wrote for whom in what context, and what that might mean to me or to us in my or our context. That’s a first order of reading, with a fancy name ‘exegesis’.

If you get going on that, you realize that others ‘read’ a different text. They bring different experience, priorities, interpretive assumptions to their reading. They wear different glasses. Perspective and ‘point of view’ do matter. Do men read differently than women? That’s a next order of reading, conscious of our interpretive, biased role as ‘readers’ or ‘hearers’. That’s called ‘hermeneutics’.

In case you thought this was just newfangled pretentious post-modern semiotics (and it is), I’m adding lines from William Blake’s poem ‘The Everlasting Gospel’

The vision of Christ that thou dost see

Is my vision’s greatest enemy.

Thine has a great hook nose like thine;

Mine has a snub nose like to mine….

Both read the Bible day and night,

But thou read’st black where I read white.

Tex Sample, the Methodist professor, says that we live in an oral culture. Over half of North Americans live in a pre-modern culture, learning things by talking and listening, or a post-modern culture taking it in visually or impressionistically. Few of us remain who prefer to live as modern readers of text, sitting alone with a book in our lap. Tex Sample is not saying that most people are illiterate, or unschooled, or stupid. He knows we can read signs, get by, and fill out forms.

But when we want to learn or know something, we don’t read the manual, we mess with it till it works, or we ask somebody. Most prefer TV and radio news clips and sound bites, not newspapers. That modern culture of sitting alone

with a book in your lap is subordinated to older ways of hearing the word read,

and seeing it shown. We are not degenerates or barbarians – just humans.

What it always meant to ‘read’ scripture, except for our brief modern run of Protestantism, and that usually among only an educated elite, is to listen and watch as others read. That does not mean that those who listen and watch are illiterate, or unschooled, or stupid. It means that most people, most of the time,

know they are better at ‘reading’ by listening and watching and doing.

‘Your actions speak so loud, I can’t hear a word you say!

I can read you like a book – and close you and ignore you just as easy.

I know how to read a face, or read a situation, and I know how to react.

I’d never make it in sales, if I couldn’t read my customer’s situation and reaction.

I could never get anything done at work if I didn’t show them, and tell them too.

If I write a memo, they read something else into it.’

What might it mean to ‘read’ scripture, or any text, like our Transition Team staffing recommendations, or our Annual Report? Our Protestant modern tradition has a big book at the front, and makes you listen to a long monologue

with lots of print text in your hand. What a nightmare, for oral and visual culture,

pre-modern and post-modern, people!

A decade ago, we ran parallel and concurrent worship in addition to the core ‘traditional service of the word’. My colleague called it ‘EPIC,’ an acronym for

E: experiential

P: participatory

I: image-rich

C: connective

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is over again. So is World Religions Day.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is not aiming for uniformity or unanimity. Such reduction to a ‘lowest common denominator’ or ‘Judeo-Christian ethos’ would smack of the old ways: imperialist and colonial missions. God forbid!

I argue we are newly sectarian in the United Church, and at Trinity, bearing witness to our peculiar truth from our particular gifts and perspective. What is our job, or the job for a Trinity pastor after me, without claiming too much, or too little, as a ministry and mission in 2019? Do we really want everybody to join us?

What if all were like us? What if we disappeared: what would be lost?

So the Transition Team’s staffing report is out this morning, along with the Annual Reports for last year, and the new edition of our newsletter. They are all online at www.trinityunitedkw.ca, before a February 10 congregational meeting.

Uploading these notes to any online readers who happen along, I am aware that somebody may listen to the audio of this reflection, and read these notes, while searching for their own new pastor and preacher, since I am ‘on the market’ as available for work. Here it comes, anyhow!