When I came home from our United Methodist General Conference in May, I shared with you these words:
Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces. Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration. And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.
I went on talk about why that was: how the source of dilemma lies in being a global church, in the way we make decisions, and the reality that we can’t agree on some fundamental basics of what it means to be church together, like what we mean by covenant or how we interpret scriptures.
This month, our bishops have not only announced the members of a special commission who will help us find a way forward, but they have also announced their intent to call a special session of General Conference in 2019… one year earlier than we would typically meet. The purpose will be to allow this commission to do their work and then the delegates of our last general conference will gather back together solely for the purpose of discussing and voting on their recommendations. Many imagine that if we cannot agree to a way to hold our differences in creative tension that our church will split at that time.
For the last few months, there has been a tension in my shoulders that I can’t quite shake.
I’m worried for my country.
I’m worried for the United Methodist Church.
I’m worried for this church.
And the root of that worry is less about who wins on Tuesday or what kind of church we will be on the other side of 2019 or how many people stayed home from worship last weekend…
I worry about how we treat one another and whether or not we see the person sitting across from us as a person of inherent worth and dignity… and that we seem unable to set aside our thoughts and opinions for long enough to actually listen to the truth of another person.
I think the antidote to the worry we collectively are bearing might be found in our scripture this morning.
One of the radical messages of Ephesians that is lost to modern readers of the scriptures is the fact that Paul reaches out and give thanks for people who are outside of his faith.
Historically, the early church experienced great tensions between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ. They had different backgrounds, different traditions and practices, and yet all claimed to have accepted the good news of God. There was infighting and arguments about who had to give up what part of their heritage in order to be part of the community.
And so when Paul, a Jewish scholar and leader of the church, writes to this Gentile community at Ephesus, it is remarkable that one of the first things he does is emphasize unity.
“We have obtained an inheritance”, Paul writes.
And then he goes a step farther… “I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Paul specifically reaches out to people who are very different from him… people he has never even met before… and tells them that he is grateful for them.
This letter to the Ephesians is fundamentally about unity.
That is our glorious inheritance.
Unity with God in Jesus Christ.
Unity with the saints who have gone before us.
And unity with one another in this present moment.
And as Paul teaches us in these first few verses that you can’t have unity without gratitude.
As we light candles to remember the saints, we are reminded that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we remain connected and unified with all of those saints who have gone before us… and with all who will come after us.
As we break bread, we sing and feast with the saints. This meal is an act of unity. This meal and the hope it instills in our souls is our inheritance.
And as we remember, we give thanks for eight people from our congregation who died this past year: for Lois. Becky. Viola. Ruth. Gary. Mildred. Sharon. Marcia. Thank you, God.
But we also give thanks for the many people, friends and family, who have gone before us.
We give thanks for all of the saints who shaped our lives.
And we give thanks for the multitudes of saints and the historic church that is our foundation. When it feels like the weight of the world is upon our shoulders and that the church will live or die based upon our decisions, it is good to remember that God’s church has been around for two thousand years. It is built upon the prophets and the apostles. The church is far bigger than this congregation or even this denomination. And for that I give thanks…
And I also pray that we might claim this inheritance and that somehow we might be part of passing along this faith to generations yet to come.
Sarah Birmingham Drummond reminds us that the unity we experience is not only across time and generations, but also for this present moment. “Paul’s message of unity was radical in its day, as it suggest unity across divisions that were woven into the fabric of daily life. This suggests that the early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.”
Let me repeat that.
The early church understood overcoming divisions to be part of its mandate.
After all, Paul was reaching out to people he didn’t have a whole lot in common with to give thanks. His letter reminded not only them, but also himself, of the unity of Christ that brings all of us together.
That is our inheritance, too.
Today, we will break bread not only with the saints, but also with people who will vote differently than us on Tuesday.
We worship every Sunday morning with people of different ages.
We worship with people who prefer different types of music.
We worship with early risers and people who long to sleep in on Sundays.
Yet overcoming division is part of our mandate as people of faith.
Being a people who overcome difference in order to be in community… that is our inheritance.
That is the faith that has been passed down from generation to generation.
No matter what happens on Tuesday.
No matter what happens in 2019 with our denomination.
No matter what tension we feel as a result of our worship times or classes or studies.
Our responsibility is to look around this room and to give thanks for each soul and get busy making a difference in this world.
That is the inheritance we can claim, right here and right now.
And we do so… we claim the inheritance of Jesus Christ across generations and across divisions because we believe that God’s mission is built upon a church united to transform this world.
Because we believe that God needs all of us… past, present, and future, to bring healing and hope to a broken people.
Because our differences are small when compared to the call God has upon our lives to claim our inheritance.
Because we believe in the immeasurable greatness of God’s power to truly make a difference… right here and right now.