January 27, 2019 – Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The following sermon was preached by the Rev. Amanda Currie at an ecumenical service held at Resurrection Roman Catholic Parish in Regina. The service was organized by the Regina Council of Churches as the closing worship for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme and key Scripture texts were chosen by the Churches of Indonesia who prepared the WPCU resources for 2019.

Deuteronomy 16:11-20
Romans 12:1-13

The theme chosen by the Christian Churches of Indonesia for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” But the first thing I noticed about the theme text from Deuteronomy is that it doesn’t ONLY focus on justice, but also includes a long section about worship.

The whole passage is a section of the Deuteronomic Law Code, an expansion of the ten commandments given to Moses and the Hebrew People at Sinai – a detailed plan for how the people will live as God’s People in the land that God is giving them.

Summarized down to its fundamental principles, the Law Code calls them to love and worship God, and to love and seek justice for their neighbours. This is the vision of God for the people, and the hope they have for building a community of joy, and peace, and prosperity for all.

The latter part of the text is the first part of a section about a system of governance and authority to be established. It will include a sharing of leadership between judges, priests, monarchs, and prophets – – a system seemingly designed to keep any one leadership group from becoming too powerful, bringing different skills and different interests together to help the people together to obey God and create a just society.

In the resources for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Christians of Indonesia explain that their society also was built on a fundamental principle of sharing. With an amazing diversity of ethnicity, language, and religion, the motto of the nation of Indonesia is translated as “Unity in Diversity” and Indonesians have historically lived according to gotong royong, which is to live in solidarity and by collaboration. This means sharing in all aspects of life, work, grief, and festivities, and regarding all Indonesians as brothers and sisters.

However, they acknowledge that much recent economic growth in the country has been built on competition, in stark contrast to the collaboration of gotong royong, resulting in corruption and injustice.

Corruption infects politics and business, often with devastating consequences for the environment. In particular, corruption undermines justice and the implementation of law.

Too often those who are supposed to promote justice and protect the weak do the opposite. As a consequence, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; and so a country rich in resources has the scandal of many people living in poverty.

A traditional Indonesian saying highlights the tragedy of people suffering in the midst of abundance – a situation that is replicated in so many parts of the world. The saying goes: “A mouse dies of hunger in the barn full of rice.”

Meanwhile particular ethnic and religious groups are often associated with wealth in ways that have fed tensions. Radicalization that pits one community against another has grown and is exacerbated by the misuse of social media that demonizes particular communities.

As Pope Francis comments in his homily for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, this is a situation we see worldwide, not only in Indonesia. “When society is no longer based on the principle of solidarity and the common good, we witness the scandal of people living in utter destitution amid skyscrapers, grand hotels, and luxurious shopping centres, symbols of incredible wealth.”

“A mouse dies of hunger in the barn full of rice.”

But rather than simply calling upon their society to change its ways and pursue justice for all people, the Indonesian Churches suggest a joint Christian response to injustice in society that begins with worshipping together as One Body. They selected for their theme Scripture a passage that promotes justice (and only justice), but it nonetheless begins with instructions for the three great worship festivals of the Jewish faith.

Each festival is a great gathering of the whole People of God, and a celebration of God’s goodness and provision. Gifts are shared, whether the gathering is for Passover, the Festival of Weeks, or the Festival of Booths. People bring their gifts and offerings in thanksgiving for God’s many blessings, and according to what they have received.

After the description of each festival the people are instructed, “Rejoice during your festival, you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, as well as the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows resident in your towns.” The celebration calls for everyone’s participation, and no one is excluded.

When I first began to look at the text earlier this week, I was baffled by the selection of verses. Why begin with a partial description of the three great festivals when justice (and only justice) was the aim of the theme? Indeed, the commentary in the resource from Indonesia admits that it’s an odd combination. They write: “At the end of this long chapter [about the festivities] it may seem strange to have two verses about appointing judges, but in this Indonesian context the links between festivities for all and justice become alive.”

And I like the way Francis explains the connection. He says: “It should not surprise us that the biblical text passes from the celebration of the three principal feasts to the appointment of judges. The feasts themselves exhort the people to justice, stating that all are fundamentally equal and all are equally dependent on God’s mercy. They also invite all to share with others the gifts they have received. Rendering honour and glory to the Lord in these yearly feasts goes hand in hand with rendering honour and justice to one’s neighbour, especially the weak and those in need.”

As Christians, we also gather together for festivals of celebration and thanks for God’s goodness to us. Whether Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost, we celebrate God’s amazing goodness and grace – in coming to us, in saving us, in equipping us as God’s People.

But what strikes me about our Christian festivals today is that we mostly celebrate them in our separate churches and denominations. Whereas the great festivals of Israel were about ALL the people coming together in one great feast of thankfulness, we go off to our separate buildings and our favoured worship rituals while our Christian neighbours down the street or around the corner do things their own way.

As an interchurch couple, my Roman Catholic husband and I have very full schedules when it comes to the great Christian festival seasons. As we come and go between our two churches’ services during Holy Week, for example, we are encouraged by the fact that we are marking the same events, celebrating the same blessings of God, reading and reflecting on the same biblical texts, and proclaiming the same good news about Jesus Christ.

But as we go back and forth, rejoicing with our two church families, we are very aware that we are still divided. We are not yet gathered at the same banquet table where all people are called, and all people are welcomed to the celebration.

That’s why this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity often feels like the greatest of the Christian festivals to me. I love Christmas, and Easter is pretty awesome. But the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the only time when we really try to get our whole Christian family to come together in one great gathering.

(Maybe we need to move it away from January when weather like today impedes us from making it a really great gathering!)

But it’s like instead of just getting together on Christmas Eve with his side of the family, and then on Christmas Day with her side of the family, you just decide to invite everyone to the one big celebration together!

There may be some challenges in getting everyone together because you do things differently. At your extended-family Christmas, it’ll be things like different practices around exchanging gifts, traditional foods, and logistics around the gathering and the meal.

There’s no question that it’s more complicated to get everyone together. And it’s more work to make sure that it goes smoothly. Even during this week, it would be easier for each church to simply add some prayers for Christian unity to our regular services of worship, rather than trying to coordinate a shared service with our diversities of liturgies, music, and expectations around leadership and preaching.

But this week is about giving thanks to God for the gift of our unity in Christ. We are One in Jesus, belonging to One Body, blessed with a diversity of gifts in our many members, and called to use them in a coordinated effort for Jesus’ mission in the world.

This week is training for us in embracing one another, and receiving each other’s gifts, and listening together for God’s Word. And this friendship and fellowship that we are working on together is the foundation for the mission that God has for us to share… a mission of seeking justice and only justice for one another, and for our neighbours, and for the world.

The Indonesian Churches put it this way: “Only by heeding Jesus’ prayer ‘that they all may be one’ can we witness to living unity in diversity. It is through our unity in Christ that we will be able to combat injustice and serve the needs of its victims.”

On Friday evening, a varied bunch of Christians got together to talk about the Bible over beer and appetizers at O’Hanlon’s Pub in downtown Regina. It was a new Week of Prayer event organized by Tashia Toupin who coordinates the ministry of social justice for the Archdiocese.

In my table group, we discussed the link between worship and justice, exploring a text from the prophet Amos in which God rejects the songs and sacrifices of the people in worship because they do it all as a show, and then go out and do very little in response to make the world a more just and peaceful place for all.

One person commented that many of our individual churches know what it means to be compassionate and caring towards those who are poor, or excluded, or suffering in various ways, but we don’t know how to build justice in our society. We know that we should feed people, but we don’t necessarily find ways to change our systems and structures so that people no longer need food banks and soup kitchens. We know that our churches and our society made massive mistakes in judging Indigenous cultures and spiritualities, and setting up the Residential School System, but we may not know where to begin in responding to the TRC Calls to Action and participating in the work of healing and reconciliation.

Particularly, our smaller churches, with aging members and fewer resources, will not be able to turn our longing for the peaceful and just society that God envisions for us into a reality if we keep trying to do it on our own.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that we are One Body with many members. Despite our historic divisions and separations, we can come together in unity to pray, and share, and work together for justice and peace.

We can bring the variety of our gifts and skills and talents, according to what God has given us… and together, as Christ’s Body on earth, we can fulfill God’s vision of the whole People of God gathered together for worship, and then go out to build communities of justice and joy.

The Indonesian Churches have suggested that we take some time in our worship to make commitments to justice before we go out from this place of worship. That’s what the cards you received on the way in today are for… so you can write your commitment to something specific and offer it as a commitment to God today.

Maybe your commitment will have to do with reconciliation, or affordable housing, or living wages for all, or gender equality. Perhaps you’ll want to put your efforts towards fighting poverty, or racism, or homophobia. But I hope you won’t think that you’re going to do it alone.

When you make your commitment, consider who might be your partners in this important work. Maybe your church, or another church, or a group of churches is working together already in that area. Maybe your community can get together with others – other churches, ministerials, councils of churches, or community groups, so that you can do together as One Body, what you could never accomplish alone.

I am glad that you were here for this, the greatest Christian festival, as we celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity together. And I hope I’ll see you again lots more before next year, as we continue to work together as Christians and Churches for justice in this community.

I will end with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “When the church is divided, injustice thrives and the world wins. When the church is united on Gospel imperatives of justice, the power of oppression will be dethroned in the name of Jesus Christ, the light of the world.” Amen.