Talk to an Ecumenical Gathering in NYC
Greetings to you, my brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. I am here as a member of the 15th Street Meeting of Friends, also known as Quakers. We are one of the many faith communities in this neighborhood that has endorsed this ecumenical worship service. I am pleased to join with you in prayer for Christian unity. I am grateful to Immaculate Conception Church for hosting this event, and I am grateful to the other participating faith communities for the part they are playing as well.
I would like to say, before beginning my reflection, that I extend my sympathy and condolences to all here who knew Richard J Neuhaus and who are grieving his recent death. I knew him only by reputation: as a respected and sometimes controversial public figure, and as a brave spokesman for the many causes he believed in. Those of you who knew him as a pastor, a spiritual counselor, and a friend must be feeling his loss all the more acutely. May God bring comfort and consolation to you.
I have been asked to reflect on the passage we have read from the prophet Ezekiel. It is a challenging passage, and it addresses precisely the subject we are praying about this week: the need for unity among God’s people. I will recap the passage briefly and then ask what it has to say to us today.
Ezekiel’s message in this passage - - and even more so in many others - - could be called a multi-media message or an audio-visual message. He not only heard a message from God: he also saw and felt it. He not only proclaimed that message to the people: he acted it out and performed it in front of them so that they would not only hear but also see what God was trying to tell them. In other parts of the book of Ezekiel, we learn that he had visions of flying creatures with four wings, visions of wheels within wheels turning in the air, and - - in an earlier part of the very same chapter from which we just read - - of a valley of dry bones which, when preached to, became clothed with flesh and came alive. Ezekiel was a very intense prophet and his message was nothing if not urgent and impassioned.
In today’s text the imagery is a little tamer than that but it is still very vivid. God told Ezekiel to take two sticks. I picture them as long poles. He was to label each stick with the name of one of the tribes into which the Hebrew people had been divided: Judah for the first stick and Joseph for the second. Then he was to join them together so that they would “become one in your hand”. I picture him here as holding the two sticks above his head for everyone to see, holding them end to end with his hand covering the place where they joined, and showing the people that when held that way they appeared as one long stick.
This visual teaching was to be backed up with a verbal explanation. When the people asked Ezekiel what he meant with his little demonstration, Ezekiel was to answer:
Thus says the Lord God: I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all. Never again shall they be two nations, and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes.
I am sure that when Ezekiel said and did all this he had the full attention of his audience. I am not so completely sure of how they felt about this message. Were they glad or not? On the one hand, he was promising them the very thing that we are praying for today. He was promising them a restoration of unity. They had been separated from each other and God was promising to bring them back together. They had been scattered among the people of other nations and God was promising to gather them in. They had been conquered and oppressed by foreigners and God was promising to give them back their own land with their own government. This must have sounded like very good news indeed.
On the other hand, this unity and ingathering was going to come at a price. The people were going to have to live by God’s laws again. God saw them as having “defiled themselves” and as having transgressed. They were going to have to change. I remember how eagerly I responded in my youth when Bob Dylan sang “The Times They are a’ Changing.” I also remember they very different reaction of some people in my parents’ generation. Every change that is experienced as a promise to some is also experienced as a threat to others, and perhaps as both to most of us.
What does this passage say to the people of today and particularly to the Christian people of today? Do we, like the tribes of Judah and Joseph, suffer from disunity and division? If so, do we sincerely wish to overcome these problems and are we in earnest when we pray to the Lord for healing, reconciliation and unity? If we are in earnest, do we dare to hope that our prayer will be answered? If it indeed is answered, are we prepared to embrace the changes that God may require of us in the process?
My answer to the first question is “Yes, we do suffer from disunity and division.” It goes almost without saying that this is true of the planet at large. We know that nation still lifts up sword against nation, with horrible consequences for soldiers and civilians alike. We know that social and economic classes are pitted against each other in a struggle for economic survival. We know that there is a growing gap between the poverty of the world’s poor and the wealth of the world’s elites. But what is true of the world at large is also true of our Christian Churches. Not only do our various denominations continue to be separate communities, many of them are also riven by internal tensions and divisions. Nor is this just a matter of honestly holding to different beliefs. All too often, these divisions are characterized by mutual suspicion and animosity. It is not yet universally true that people can tell we are Christians by our love for each other.
My answer to the second question is more hopeful: Yes, we do earnestly desire to overcome disunity and we are in earnest when we pray for reconciliation. There is something within us, no doubt sown in our souls by God himself, which yearns for brotherhood and sisterhood. This is felt by all kinds of people, not just Christians. I think it must be because of this yearning that people all over the world responded so hopefully to our recent elections here in the United States. I know that I myself yearn for Christian unity. I imagine that each of you, looking within, can say the same.
My answer to the third question is tentative, but also hopeful. I think we do dare to hope that our prayer for unity will be answered. God may not go so far as to make the Quakers into Roman Catholics or the Roman Catholics into Baptists. We may still need to put our own signs on the sticks that represent our different communions. But if we are willing to be lifted up by Him and to acknowledge Him as our Living God, it does seem possible that he can hold these different “sticks” together and wield them as one to do His work. What that work may turn out to be, I do not know. Maybe God wants us to become a people who are able together:
- To practice hospitality for the stranger and alien,
- To practice peace toward each other, our neighbors, and even our supposed enemies,
- To live the gospel in our daily lives, becoming channels of Peace and Reconciliation in the world around us.
How wonderful it would be to find ourselves used in that work, and to be able to give Him praise and thanks for the privilege of serving Him in this way.
As for the fourth question, the answer to that is at this moment still open. Let us hope that we are prepared to embrace the changes that God may require of us. We are by and large a privileged people living in a privileged land. We have been asking a lot from the earth, from our fellow human beings, and from our other fellow-creatures on this planet to support and sustain the life to which we are accustomed. God, in justice, may ask us to change this. If we are excessively attached to the things we own and the ways we live, it may be very difficult for us to accept these changes.
Likewise, our very divisions have in some ways become comfortable for us. We do not have to spend much time with people that we fundamentally disagree with, or even with people whose customs and habits are different than ours. The patience and tolerance it will take to achieve real unity and begin to work together may also be difficult for us to cultivate. My deepest hope is that with God all things are possible. Imperfect creatures though we are, we are nevertheless indwelt by something from God that can teach us, in the words of Quaker George Fox “how to live and what to deny”. We are meant to be in unity with Him and with one another. We are meant to be “one in His Hand”. And by his grace we can be indeed.