Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

The following sermon was preached on Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 3:00 p.m. at McClure United Church in Saskatoon. The occasion was the concluding service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Organized by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, Christians from many churches throughout the city of Saskatoon gathered to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the calling of the Second Vatican Council and 50 years of ecumenical ministry by Father Bernard de Margerie. The service also included a covenant signing by the sponsoring churches of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism. Audio recordings of the sermon and other parts of the service are available.

Ezekiel 37:15-28

The theme and scriptures and reflections for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity were prepared for Christians throughout the world by the churches of Korea. And it’s interesting that Saskatoon has ended up with a Presbyterian minister preaching at the concluding worship because Korea has lots and lots of Presbyterians.

Christianity is strong and growing in South Korea, and there are more Protestants than Catholics there, and more Presbyterians than any other Protestant denomination. That’s a strange thing for Presbyterians here in Saskatoon to imagine, because in Canada and particularly in Western Canada we are a very small denomination. Here in Northern Saskatchewan, we have five clergy, ten congregations and a Native Ministry, and many of those churches are small and struggling.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian missionaries from many parts of the world went to Korea to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and today Korean churches send missionaries by the thousands to share the faith that they have so strongly embraced in Korea. Korean Presbyterian Churches in Canada are some of our most vibrant and growing communities, and many Korean ministers are now serving in Presbyterian churches across our country. In fact, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada this year is the Rev. Cheol Soon Park, minister at the Toronto Korean Presbyterian Church.

So I’ve learned a little from my Korean colleagues about the churches in Korea. They’re huge (from our perspective), they’re growing (which seems amazing when we compare them to our numbers slowly, but steadily decreasing), and they’re active and vibrant too.

On Monday morning this week, the Rev. Terry Wiebe at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral challenged the early morning worshippers at the 7 a.m. service to consider the divisions within our own denominations. If the Anglicans are divided and the Lutherans are divided and the Mennonites are divided, how can we possibly think about all of us getting together and becoming one?

And that’s the thing that is most striking about the Presbyterians in Korea. At home, I’m used to one “Presbyterian Church in Canada”. We have a wide range of theological ideas, some disagreements about ministry priorities, and lots of variety in styles of worship, but we are one church. In recent history, our practice has been to live with the diversity and the conflict over controversial issues rather than to insist on one way and risk splitting the church in half.

But in Korea, there are around one hundred different Presbyterian churches — one hundred different denominations of Presbyterians. I found a list of them on the internet. Most of them are called “The Presbyterian Church in Korea” or “The Korean Presbyterian Church”, but others have names like “The Conservative Presbyterian Church”, or “The Fundamentalist Presbyterian Church”, “The Pure Presbyterian Church”, or “The Women Pastors Presbyterian Church”.

A Korean theological student who worked in my congregation here in Saskatoon last summer likely reflected a typical Korean attitude about ecumenism. He figured that it would be better to separate, for churches to go our separate ways so that each one can keep on preaching the Gospel and bringing more people to Christ. That would be better than to stay stuck in our disagreements and conflicts, paralyzed by our inability to work together.

And I can see his point. “Staying One” takes a lot of hard work, patience, and often humility. Most of our congregations and our denominations know from experience that it’s not easy to “stay one” with all the diversity of experience, culture, thought, and practice that exists within our churches. And yet, the Korean Churches that prepared our Week of Prayer resources were willing to say not only that “staying one” within their denominations was important, but the more difficult task of “becoming one” was in fact their goal.

The ecumenical movement in Korea is growing and developing. There have been joint services during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity since the early 1970’s. And the Presbyterians, though they are many denominations, are working at “becoming one” again. They are coming together in councils of Presbyterian Churches, and they are moving towards closer collaboration with the wider Reformed family.

It was a bold move for the Korean Churches to choose the theme for this week, “That they may become one in your hand.” They selected the theme of “becoming one”, not because they could provide a model for coming together as one in Christian unity, but because they could understand and relate the deep pain and sadness that exists when we are divided. Not only are the churches of Korea divided, and just taking first steps towards becoming one, but the nation itself is divided.

Their history includes 5000 years of maintaining themselves as one nation. But in the first half of the 20th century, Korea was occupied by the Japanese, and that period included many internal conflicts in Korea. Many years of ideological struggle ended in the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, based on Communism, in the north, and the founding of the Republic of Korea, based on democracy, in the south. The conflict and confrontation between these ideologies led to the tragedy of the Korean War in the early 1950’s, in which many people lost their lives. In 1953 an armistice was signed, and the border between North and South Korea, with its demilitarized zone, became the visible symbol of the tragedy of Korean history.

The number of families divided by the war and its aftermath may be as many as 10 million. There is a wall between the two peoples of north and south, a wall which seems hard to break down. Yet even though they face many differences and conflicts, Koreans hope for a peaceful and reconciling unification on the Korean peninsula.

And so we turn to the prophetic and hopeful text that the Korean churches have chosen for our shared reflection this week. The prophet Ezekiel was among the people of Judah during their exile in Babylon. Most of us are probably familiar with Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones that comes in the first half of the same chapter that we heard today. When Ezekiel tells the exiles about that vision, he gives them a reason to hope that they will get back to the land that God gave to them, that they’ll be restored and able to be God’s people again.

The prophet describes a valley, the scene of a long-ago battle, and the valley is full of dry, dry bones. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, saying “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” And bones rattle, and they come together into bodies, and flesh appears on them, and skin too. And Ezekiel prophesies some more, and breath comes into them, and they live.

For the people of Judah in exile, this was a message of hope and possibility when they had lost all their hope and felt completely cut off. It’s the kind of hope that we might look for in our congregations and denominations when we are struggling — hope for renewal, for the possibility of growth, for the vision of vitality through the breath of God’s Spirit. But the prophet’s next message from God goes one step further. If the Judahites thought that their restoration and return to Judah and Jerusalem was unlikely, they probably would have said that Ezekiel’s next prophecy was impossible.

My husband and I are an inter-church family. While I am a Presbyterian minister, Nick is a Roman Catholic. And we describe our family as “inter-church” rather than a “mixed marriage” because instead of going our separate ways on Sunday mornings, we choose to worship together — not by choosing one of our churches and the other one giving up their tradition, but by worshipping together in both of our Christian communities. We are at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church together on Sunday mornings, and then we join the Catholic community at St. Joseph’s parish later that afternoon as often as we can.

I enjoy going to mass on Sunday afternoons, partly because I appreciate hearing another reflection on the lectionary readings that are so often the same in both our churches. Father Paul Fachet is normally the homilist and celebrant at the 5 p.m. mass at St. Joseph’s, and when he preaches, he often brings along a prop to illustrate his point and perhaps to help his listeners to remember the Gospel message.

Today, I thought I would follow his example and do the same thing, so I brought along two sticks. I don’t know if these are the kind of sticks that God was talking about when he told Ezekiel to put two sticks together in his hand. The Hebrew word in the text is difficult to translate, so it might have been two sticks, or maybe two pieces of wood. Literally, it could be read as “two trees”, or some have suggested two wooden writing tablets.

But I’m not sure that it matters. The point is that God tells Ezekiel to take two sticks. First, take one stick and write on it, “For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it”. Then take another one stick and write on it, “For Joseph and all the House of Israel associated with it.” And then join them together so that they may become one in your hand.

The sticks in Ezekiel’s hand represent the two kingdoms of Israel. As you know, the twelve tribes together were supposed to be one People. Together, they were supposed to be God’s People. And they were one kingdom at one time — under the reign of King David and then King Solomon, they were united. But conflict sprang up, as it does in all our communities, and countries, and churches, and they were divided into two kingdoms, with two different kings — two separate Peoples.

On Thursday morning this week, Mennonite Pastor Vern Ratzlaff shared a reflection on Psalm 133, one of the psalms of ascent, one of the songs that the People of Israel would have sung as they went up to Jerusalem for the great festivals of their faith. The psalm begins, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” And Vern pointed out that the psalm wasn’t about nuclear families getting along and avoiding fighting with each other. It was about something much bigger, something much more difficult to accomplish and something worthy of great celebration. The unity that the psalm speaks of and celebrates is the unity of the People of Israel — north and south, Joseph and Judah, one People of God.

By the time Ezekiel was prophesying to the People of Judah exiled in Babylon, the chance of that kind of unity must have seemed very far-fetched. The kingdoms had been separated for centuries, and the problems that Judah was facing were terrible enough, without thinking about trying to get back together with the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The hope for becoming one was just too much.

On Friday evening at “Wine, Worship & Praise” Lutheran Pastor Bruce Elhert boldly pointed out that actually becoming one church is huge! We can get along and cooperate and worship together sometimes, but he invited us to pause and think about the implications of our prayers for unity. Becoming one would require us to change significantly. Let’s think about what we are praying for, he said, because God might actually do it.

For some in the ecumenical movement, the end goal is something more like understanding one another, or not competing with each other, or maybe cooperating with each other on certain projects, and coming together to pray on special occasions like this. And those things are good, and those things are very manageable for us. They are very achievable goals. But I think that God was talking about a greater kind of unity for the two kingdoms of Israel, and I believe that God desires a greater kind of unity for the church today — a kind of unity that actually involves becoming one.

There’s a very interesting thing in the Ezekiel text with the word “one.” In verses 16-19 alone, the Hebrew word for “one” appears eight times. First, Ezekiel must take ONE stick and write on it, “For Judah and the Israelites associated with it”. Next, he must take ONE stick and write on it, “For Joseph and all the House of Israel associated with it”. Then he must somehow conjoin the two (maybe strap them together tightly? maybe place them end to end?). He must put them together in his hand so that they become ONE.

But the strange thing here is that the text uses the plural form of the word ONE. That sounds really weird to English speakers since we have no plural form of ONE. But the two sticks become ONE (plural) in Ezekiel’s hand. They’re ONE COUPLE of sticks? They look like ONE, but they’re two together, two bound together, two that appear to be ONE.

That’s what happens in Ezekiel’s hand. But then we hear what God is going to do. God is going to take the one stick of Joseph. And God is going to put one the stick of Judah upon it, and God is going to make them one stick, in order that they may be ONE in God’s hand. And this time, the word ONE is no longer plural. In God’s hand, they will become ONE (singular!). They will truly be ONE.

The point is that what seems impossible for us, is possible for God. What is just a dream for us alone, God can make into a reality. What we can do only partially, God can do completely.

But we need to trust God enough to participate in God’s work of making us one. Like Ezekiel, God is calling us to put our sticks together. God is calling us to draw close to each other, and to pray and ask God to make us one. That’s what this Week of Prayer is all about. Christians around our city and around the world are praying together, worshipping together, studying together, and sharing fellowship together. We are putting our sticks together and asking God to make us one.

Today, many of our churches are also going to renew a covenant — making promises and committing ourselves to keep on praying and working together towards Christian unity. Maybe it’s because I’m a Reformed Christian, or maybe it’s because my inter-church marriage is such an important part of my ecumenical commitment, but the covenant signing today made me think about marriage.

In my tradition, marriage is celebrated primarily as a covenant. Two separate individuals come together to commit themselves to live together in unity throughout their lives. They make promises before God and their community to be together always in love and faithfulness no matter what challenges or obstacles they may encounter.

As Nick and I prepared to be married eight years ago, I learned that marriage in the Roman Catholic tradition is celebrated as a Sacrament. Like with the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion that my church celebrates, a sacramental understanding of marriage insists that when two become one in marriage, it is by the activity of God, not simply by the promises of husband and wife. When we celebrate a sacrament, any sacrament, we participate with God in making God’s grace present in the world. We cannot do it on our own, but God can do it with and through us.

Despite differences, despite conflicts, despite our human faults and failings, I believe that God can make two become one. That is the hope that I have for my marriage. That is the hope that Korean Christians have for their churches and their nation. That is the hope that we can share for the church here in Saskatoon and Saskatchewan, and for the church throughout the world.

This year we are celebrating the fact that fifty years ago many Christians began to believe in that hope and to participate with God in beginning to make it a reality. The announcement of the Second Vatican Council began an amazing development in the relationship of the Christian Churches and opened up the hope for coming together and someday becoming one.

In our own community, we give thanks for Father Bernard deMargerie, who heard the call to a ministry of ecumenism fifty years ago, and who dedicated his life to participating with God in bringing the churches together.

I am reminded of what Bishop Bryan Bayda said during his homily last Sunday afternoon at the beginning of our week together. He talked about the need for us to connect our will to the will of the Father. And I can’t help but think that Father Bernard must have truly connected his will, his heart, his prayer… to the prayer of Jesus in John 17:21 — “that they may all be one… so that the world may believe.”

The unity for which Jesus prayed is something that I believe God is able to accomplish in us. Through Father Bernard’s ministry, through the ministry of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism, and through all our ecumenical endeavours, God is working to make us one. And so, as churches, let us hope, and pray, and work for the unity that is God’s will for us. As we renew our ecumenical covenant today, may God truly bind us together that we may become one in God’s hand. Amen.