Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace

Sermon preached at Hughes United Methodist Church, Wheaton, MD on 6 August 2006

As I sat on the balcony of my cousins' house in St. Cergue Switzerland at the end of June, working on my sermon for this morning, I gazed across the wildflower laden fields that surround the house formerly owned by French philosopher Henri Bergson and across Lake Geneva at the grandeour and beauty of Mount Blanc and thought to myself that there could be no better home for the primary institutional representation of the movement toward church unity than in the shadow of such an iconic vista of the glory of God. Last night, at Chicago's O'Hare airport, rewriting the sermon I wrote in Geneva, I was struck by how my change of sermon writing scenery to rushing passengers, cramped waiting lounges and extraordinarily overpriced food is actually a much more accurate metaphor for the ecumenical movement in its present practice. You see, I have spent the last month and a half traveling across three continents visiting and journeying with various expressions of ecumenical community and getting an on-the-ground experience to balance out the idealistic vision of ecumenism that we are sometimes taught in the seminary classroom. This meant that the closely argued, thoroughly researched sermon on the Ephesians 4 text suddenly became inadequate in the face of the deeply personal situations and experiences I encountered.

The passage we read from the Epistle to the Ephesians this morning emphatically exhorts us to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," and then goes on to assign to that life three virtues - humility, gentleness and patience - and one characteristic - unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It is this latter characteristic that concerns me this morning as it is a perfect definition for the goal of the ecumenical movement. The ecumenical movement is not concerned solely with church unity for its own sake any more than Jesus, in his prayer recorded in the Gospel according to John on the eve of his death, is concerned with unity for its own sake but instead he says that the goal of church unity is "that the world might believe." This is the same thing the writer of Ephesians is concerned with when he speaks of church unity in the bond of peace because belief in Jesus is belief in the Prince of Peace. Thus, the quest for Christian unity can never be a cheap unity, as some would surely have it, but must be a costly unity that will not even be satisfied with peace within the church but will insist upon a peaceful church in a peaceful world, a sure sign of the coming reign of God.

The first community I visited was the Iona Community. The Iona Abbey was rebuilt by the founder of the Iona Community, George MacLeoud, in replica of the 12th century Benedictine abbey that inhabited the site previously. The Iona Community is a disperced ecumenical order made up of men and women, mostly in Scotland and England but also elsewhere around the world, who have dedicated themselves to a life of prayer, bible study, and service rooted in a deep concern for social justice. As my own abbot jokingly pointed out, everything in the Iona community is about social justice, which gets tacked onto the end of every program theme so that the program I attended was subtitled "Gaelic spirituality and social justice" while other programs look at liturgy and social justice, public action for social justice, free trade and social justice, peanut butter and jelly and social justice; oh, wait, maybe not the last one, but they probably could do! The program was entitled "Where Three Streams Meet," which refers to the Gaelic tradition of going to pray for justice at the place where three streams meet. Throughout the week, we cosmopolitan pilgrims in attendance were introduced to Gaelic culture and language, the struggle to keep both alive under the forces of globalization seeking to supplant the Gaelic language, which is so integral to Gaelic culture, with English, and the violence exerted against Gaelic speakers by English speakers in an attempt to assimilate them. This cultural oppression is of concern to God because Christian spirituality is inherent to Gaelic culture and its oppression is a type of structural violence that does not always leave visible scars but deeply wounds the social psyche of these people of God.

My second visit was with the Taize Community in the south of France, a globally recognized ecumenical order that plays host to between three and six thousand people, mostly under the age of 25, each week of the summer every year, and slightly fewer each week the rest of the year. These droves are drawn from all over the world, bringing their various languages, cultures and lives together to share for a week in the daily round of prayer, study, work and rest of the brothers. Unfortunately, violence has broken through the Taize bubble. Some of you may be aware of the death of brother Roger, founder of the Taize Community, just about a year ago. During evening prayer, a woman sick with mental illness entered the church, passed through the thousands of people surrounding the brothers, cleared the verdant wall of shrubbery separating the brothers from the people, negotiated a crowd of small children surrounding brother Roger, and slit his throat. Immediately after it happened questions arose as to whether the brothers would increase security, installing metal detectors at the doors of the church, searching bags when people arrived. After much prayer and discernment, the brothers decided that they would make no changes in how the community operates. There are no metal detectors or searches. The only protection is the same shrubbery separating the visitors from the brothers that was unable at last to protect brother Roger. To some extent this response comes from one of the 45 thousand letters sent to the community, this one from the prior of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, which said, "The dramatic circumstances of Brother Roger's death are merely an external coating that serve to make yet clearer his vulnerability that he cultivated as a doorway by which, by preference, God gains access to us." Being vulnerable means being open, taking risks that we may be hurt or even killed. And yet it is by this very means that we have access to God. Thus the relationship between unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace beccomes clear as it is only when we are living in peace that the vulnerability necessary to spiritual life and thus Christian unity can exist unmaligned by fear and violence.

Last Monday afternoon I arrived back in the US from a two-week Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation to Colombia. While there we met with people, church leaders, and human rights organizations who suffer under constant and violent oppression by the Colombian government and military, supposedly demobilized paramilitaries, and guerillas. We met one family, out of 3 million in Colombia, who have been displaced from their homes due to being caught in the middle of paramilitary and guerilla violence. We met with a women's organization that runs a series of lunch houses to provide inexpensive meals to women, specifically single mothers, and children. They closed up one of their lunch houses one afternoon and when they returned the next morning discovered that the house had been torn down and both the structure and all of its contents had been removed from the site. They arrived to find an empty lot. Their house had been disappeared by paramilitaries! With met with families of victims of a massacre carried out by paramilitaries on the 16th of May, 1998 when they interrupted a community assembly on a soccer field and insisted that 32 men get on the back of a truck. Twenty-seven complied and have never been heard from again. The rest were shot on the spot. We met with union organizers and human rights activists who are unable to spend consecutive nights in the same place for fear of being assassinated. We met with peasant farmer activists who live in their office in the city because it would be too great a risk to go home at night. We met some of the farmers they advocate for who have been driven from their land with equipment provided by the 700 million dollars the US spends on military aid to Colombia each year, third only to Israel and Egypt, and the land is then taken over by president Urribe and the fourteen other major land owners in Colombia who already own 65% of the land. We heard about the Colombian Law of Justice and Peace, referred to by the people as the Law of Impunity, which was supposedly intended to demobilize the paramilitary but has instead had the effect of legitimizing their violence because they have simply reorganized themselves into private security forces and continue to carry out the same violent acts and oppression of the people that they have been engaged in for years, although now the government can deny complicity because they are "demobilized." We observed a demonstration by workers from the Coca-Cola plant who were protesting the assassination, arranged by the Coca-Cola corporation, of workers who sought to organize unions. We visited a community of displaced on the borders of the industrial city of Barrancabermeja and listened as our bus driver recounted how he lived in that ramshackle and destitute villiage thirteen years ago when paramilitaries came looking for him because he was a leading organizer of the workers at Ecopetrol, the nationalized oil company, and not finding him they assassinated his 20 year old son right there in the street where we were standing. We met with farmers who grow coca, used to make cocaine, who grow it not because they want to but because it is the only way they can subsist. Furthermore, US funded fumigations are being targeted by the Urribe administration against agricultural crops instead of coca crops, as evidenced both by the personal stories of farmers as well as the increase in coca production since fumigations began. Plan Colombia is a failed piece of US foreign policy proped up by multinational corporations who have a special interest in the instability of Colombia because it maximizes their profits. It is one of the winds of doctrine we are warned to resist being blown about by as it is trickery and craftiness in deceitful scheming.

So where is the church in the midst of this corruption and violence? To a large extent the churches are complicit in the violence, either turning a blind eye or even supporting and legitimating the structures that perpetrate it. But there are some churches, and sectors of other churches, who have taken a stand on the side of the poor and the oppressed. They have taken the side of peace because they know that it is the will of God, God's dream for the world, that they do so. We heard that 75 pastors have been assassinated in the past 2 years in northern Colombia. We also observed a popular assembly in Micoahumado, a small peasant villiage in the mountains of northern Colombia, which is a grassroots political organization for the surrounding area. At the assembly we watched as its facilitators welcomed the cooperation of Roman Catholic and pentecostal church leaders in guiding, shaping, and providing space for the assembly to occur. Many of the human rights organizations we met with were birthed in the Roman Catholic church and one of the most effective is still led by a Jesuit priest. We heard from a Mennonite pastor about an ecumenical proposal that has been put forward to try to reform the Law of Justice and Peace so that it effectively mitigates continued violence and oppression.

The movement toward Christian unity is an inherently missiological enterprise. Ecumenism has mission at its heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who take up the exhortation to "live a life worthy of the call to which you have been called" which takes as its primary characteristic "unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." At its 9th General Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil this past February, the World Council of Churches united missions and peacemaking under the banner of reconciliation. They did this in two ways. First, the missions agenda for the next eight years has been set to focus on reconciliation and healing. Second, the assembly approved the faith and order document entitled "The Nature and Mission of the Church" and commended it to the churches for study and reflection. The good news is that the church has not entirely lost sight of the dream God has for the world in which the wolf lies down with the lamb, swords are turned into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. A spirituality of justice and peacemaking is possible only on the foundation of a spirituality of prayer through which God imparts this vision and graces us the courage, strength, and perseverance to attain it. The writer of Ephesians exhorts us to such a life, a "life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," a life characterized by unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.