Proper 7 – Year C

One of the real joys I’ve regularly had as a parish priest over the years is the opportunity of going off on a weekend getaway occasionally as a part of a congregational retreat. Maybe some of you here at St. Mary’s have done these sorts of things as well. Normally this has meant somewhere between 20 and 50 folks heading off to some kind of a camp or retreat center – a church camp, or an organizational retreat, or some other setting away from the hustle and bustle of daily life – for a few days filled with lots of fun, good food, great conversation, deep prayer, and occasionally a miracle or two thrown in along the way just to keep things interesting.

A few years ago now, when I was a parish priest up in the San Francisco Bay Area, we had headed off for our annual parish weekend retreat to the Bishop’s Ranch, the camp and conference center for the Diocese of California, nestled amidst the vineyards of the Russian River Valley. For those of you who have been off on church retreats before, you will know that the worship in that type of setting is, quite intentionally, considerably less formal than the kind of worship you might do when you’re back within the confines of your home church building on a Sunday morning.

Well, we were gathered for worship one evening during our retreat time, and we were singing a song which I had learned at another church camp nearly 50 years ago now. (I keep teaching you old church camps songs, don’t I?) It’s a simple little song with only four lines – the first three lines actually being the same. Perhaps some of you know this song as well. It goes like this:

Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Because he first loved me.

And then, after we would sing that chorus, I would invite volunteers to hold up their hands so that they could sing a sort of “call and response” dialogue with me that goes like this… Let’s say _____ volunteered to sing.

So, I would sing to _____: _____, do you love Jesus?
And ___ would sing back: Yes, I love Jesus
And I would sing: Why do you love Jesus?
And _____ would reply: Because he first loved me.

And then, we’d all sing the chorus together again. Well, we were singing our hearts out with “Oh, how I love Jesus”, and 3or 4 people had volunteered to sing along in the dialogue. We were drawing to the end of the chorus one time, and I saw a hand waving out of the corner of my eye. So I turned to sing the next verse with this person and was surprised by who it was who had held up her hand.

It was a person in the congregation whose name most people didn’t even know. One reason was that she was only five years old. But even more importantly, it was because she was such a quiet and shy little girl that even I had never heard a single word come out of her mouth. Her name was Brynth. Well, Brynth was sitting on the floor right up in front, so I walked up to her with my guitar, and got down on my knees next to her and sang, Brynth, do you love Jesus?

And in a voice which came out barely above a whisper, she sang back to me, Yes, I love Jesus.
I sang: Why do you love Jesus?
And in a squeaky voice which was barely audible, she replied: Because he first loved me.
The room was silent. And just for a moment… even the choirs of angels in heaven… paused… and held their breath… to hear a young child sing.

Nearly 2000 years ago now, St. Paul wrote a letter to the people of a congregation he had established in a province of the Roman Empire called Galatia, a region in the hill country of what is now central Turkey, which had been settled by people from throughout the Middle East. Paul’s custom was that he would travel throughout that part of the world as a sort of itinerant preacher and church planter, starting churches in the towns he visited along the way… staying long enough just to get them established (whether that took a few months or a few years) … before moving on to the next place down the road. But after he would depart, Paul wouldn’t leave these nascent congregations bereft of his leadership. Even in his absence, he would stay in contact with the members of these churches through intentional and regular correspondence. He was a master of the lost art of writing letters… a portion of one of which we heard this morning.

It seems as though the good people of the church in Galatia had taken up the nasty habit of comparing themselves to one another in terms of who were the real keepers of the faith… questioning one another’s heritage, or social standing, or gender as measures which determined which of them was closer to God, which of them was the better Christian. Paul caught wind of this dissension in the church in Galatia, and so one of the purposes of his letter was to set them straight, to keep them focused on the common goal. And so, he wrote to them,
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The world of 2016 is probably not all that different from the world of 45 or 50 A.D. when Paul first wrote those words. The players have changed (and there are a whole lot more of us), and the stakes have gone up considerably… but in the end it seems as though we’re still trying to prove to one another that some of us are more blessed, some of us are more holy, some of us are more loved by God than the rest of humanity.

Twice in the past week that point was driven home to me in stark and agonizing terms. Following the horrific shooting a week ago at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, it’s now time for the next painful chapter in the lives of so many, as it is funeral season for the 49 people who were killed early last Sunday morning. To no one’s great surprise, I suppose, the members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS, said they would be traveling to Orlando to picket the funerals of those who had been killed in the carnage, so that they could witness to their narrow understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

The other episode came in a conversation I had with a student. Some of you know that I spent most of last week up in Berkeley, teaching at the seminary there. One of the students in my class comes from southern Ohio. In reality, it might be better to say that he comes “through” Ohio, having been there for eight years now, after having spent his first 30 years living in Rwanda. He was able to escape the genocide there, and finally make his way to the United States. He is a lifelong Anglican… the son of an Anglican priest in Rwanda. He was talking in class the other day, however, that he is not able to return to Rwanda, to the country and to the church which formed him. You see, apparently by spending the last eight years as an Episcopalian in the U.S., he is now “tainted.” And so, to be able to return to the Anglican Church in Rwanda, he would first have to confess his sins, to ask forgiveness from his church, and then maybe – only maybe – be restored to fullness in that community.

And so to us… as to that first generation of believers in Galatia… Paul reminds us that, “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” You’ll notice that Paul doesn’t say, “All of you are the same in Christ Jesus,” or “All of you are equal – separate, but equal – in Christ Jesus,” or even say, “All of you matter in Christ Jesus.” He says, “All of you are one.”

To those who would seek to divide God’s creation into “us” and “them” – whoever the “us” and the “them” might be – Paul reminds us that there is no “us” and “them”… that there is only “us”… and that even God is one of “us.” We are one… not by our choice, but by God’s choice. Unity – it need not be confused with “uniformity”, as though the only way we might be united would be for us all to look or act or think or believe the same way. Our own life as a nation is a prime example of this. We are called the “United” States of America, with no expectation whatsoever that the states of California, and Texas, and North Dakota, and South Carolina should look exactly the same as one another. Unity – being one – in our faith life as in our civic life, is about being of a common mind, a shared vision, a single hope – even as that unity is expressed in a variety of ways.

That’s one of the reasons that I think it is so important that we pray each week for our Presiding Bishop; and for our bishops; and for Lester Mackenzie, our new priest here; and for a branch of the Anglican Communion like the Church of North India in a couple of minutes during our Prayers of the People. It’s not just a reminder that we are bigger than just this assembly of Christians gathered here this morning. It’s a reminder that we are one… we are only one… that, as Benjamin Franklin supposedly said at the height of the Revolutionary War: “We must all hang together… or we will most certainly all hang separately.”

When Brynth sang at worship that evening during our parish retreat, the real miracle wasn’t that this quiet little 5-year old girl chose to put herself out there in such a public way in front of a group of people she didn’t really know all that well. The real miracle was that when she sang those few simple words, she sang them for all of us – and each one of us, in our own way, sang them along with her. And for just a moment, we were all truly one, just as Paul – and God – had promised us.

May you find God in your self, and in your friends, and in your family, and in your world… today… that we might come to know that, because he first loved us, in Christ Jesus, “all of us are one.”

Won’t you join with me?
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Because he first loved me.