Both the gospel of John, and the letters of John, are full of words like seeing, light, darkness, hearing, believing, and revelation. They all have to do with the issue of faith and understanding. The passage read today is no exception for in John’s community, late in the first century, the time had passed when they expected to meet the living Jesus. Faith necessarily had to come through believing the reports of those who had seen.
Faith in what we cannot see is a conundrum that people throughout all of history and each of us has wrestled with. We read stories of faith in the scriptures; we know it from history, but it is in our living stories- as we encounter them here and now in ever new guises- where we are challenged anew to enact the law of love, neighborliness and right action based on our beliefs- as first John says – to be in fellowship with one another.
Perhaps no one in our day is a better public example of that than The Dalai Lama, whose reading you heard earlier. In my opinion, he is one of the living “Christ figures” – or as others might say “Buddha figures”, who teaches profound lessons by the way he lives his life – dealing with difficult, sometimes life and death situations, with courage, grace, humor and strength. Underlying it all is a deep faith in the bigger picture – we might call it God or the Universe or Life with a big L.
Central to the passage from John that Lynn has read today is the theme of fellowship. The author of recognized the importance of fellowship as we encounter life situations– one believer to another- and points out that this fellowship is founded upon the fellowship of the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. The word koinonia in 1 John 1:6-7, is used to imply active Christian participation – basically a partnership in a venture or joint ownership of a concern. This fellowship is not limited to enjoying the privileged position of palace life as the chosen leader, as could be the case of the Dalai Lama, nor to juice and cookies after church in our own case. It invites a robust, active, living faith- being fully committed to embracing those things that come our way.
This morning I have a story of fellowship founded in a Christian community – challenged by a social issue of its time and place. As I tell this story, I’d like to suggest that you put yourself in it, and think of what role you might have played? Can you reframe it as happening here at Pilgrim, or in Anacortes, and if so think of who the characters might have been, and who the protagonist?
Reverend Don Wall served a church in a small fishing village back east. People were slow to get to know, but usually they were friendly once they did get to know you. Don received a phone call from a woman one evening, who told him that she had recently moved to the area and had not felt at home in the one church she had tried. She wondered if it would be all right to attend his church. Don’s response was: “Everyone is always welcome at our church.”
Shortly after, a parishioner called and said that the woman had called from her home – and did he know that she was black? He had wondered, but assured the agitated parishioner that “she had done what was right.”
For Rev. Wall, and soon for his congregation, a prophetic moment had presented itself -an opening to a stranger. He had heard the suffering voice of one in pain, and had reacted with the appropriate Christian response – “Everyone is welcome, and you did what was right.” He had talked the talk. Now, could he- could the congregation, walk the walk? This moved fellowship out of the weekly friendliness of more or less homogenous neighbors at church, to what was for some, the gut-wrenching challenge to their belief systems, and their comfortable pews. The issue of racial discrimination was up front and center.
Rev. Wall felt the presence of God in the prophetic moment, but he also felt the very real possibility of chaos. He exercised sound judgment at this point by calling the board together, to discuss the situation. They expressed several concerns – some of them will be familiar to us: this week there will be one of them, next week there will be 15; there may be a drop in contributions; some people may leave the church. One of the newly elected women elders offered to bring the woman – Mary- to church. Rev. Wall started the koinonia- the joint ownership of a concern. The elder moved it forward. In the meantime, Don learned that in the last church Mary had attended, there had been a phone threat that the church would be burned down “if that nigger keeps coming to church.”
The prophetic moment often occurs during the normal flow of life. It may knock the socks off us, challenging relationships and longstanding beliefs, but God has a powerful way of supporting us- if we allow God in. Sometimes the challenge comes with some warning. For example, we have known for some time that things were going to change in some ways for Pilgrim. But most of us are well-entrenched in the ways we have framed our world and find it difficult to move away from the way it has always been. Many of us would like to think we have THE vision for the way it will be. Do we have faith to allow the process to be Spirit guided, rather than having to have it our way? My experience is that we usually will find guidance and assurance if we can allow ourselves to be open and support our plans and our words with prayer and study of wisdom like the Bible and other wisdom sources.
It is tempting at moments like these to return to business as usual and avoid the fact that there may be a challenge/opportunity at hand. What lost opportunities may occur as we busy ourselves elsewhere and fail to walk bravely with open minds and hearts into the unknown places? What chaos may ensue as we postpone the entry into the opportunity? Has that already happened at Pilgrim? Or has it not?
Reverend Wall became aware of the challenge to his own cultural context –the old, comfortable middle-class common sense values – the way it has always been (for at least as long as he could remember.) How comfortable and easy it would have been to stay on this safe path. The potential newcomer however, invited action on the Christian commandment to love one another. She invited the congregation to move from a shallow fellowship of word only, to a God based fellowship of word and love in action, welcoming the stranger.
Mary came to church that Sunday, and returned week after week. By her quiet presence over the next 8 months, she challenged the racial mores of the small community- she broke through their stereotypes. A few spoke to her - many avoided her – there was much tension, not much said. After 3 months she took a membership class and joined the church. Jan an aging widow who had raised a large family, befriended her. Jan said her family had let go of the pride that prevents people from loving and understanding one another. During this time - a difficult time- Rev. Wall was aware of praying more than once, “God why are you doing this to us?” Have you ever asked that question? I sure have.
In the beginning of this one woman siege- gentle though it was - on life as it had been, Don paid a visit to Sam and Margie James. Sam resolved, somewhat whiteknuckling it - that no one was going to force him to leave his church. Margie, stuck in the rigidity of her upbringing, said she couldn’t stay, and was gone for 8 months. Suddenly one day, without further conversation, she returned.
Change takes time – time for the head and the heart to get together, time to change beliefs and behaviors that May be 20, 40, 80 years ingrained. They may involve deep personal work and conflict conditioned with a generous mix of the Holy Spirit in prayer. It may simply be a matter of the Holy Spirit working in us- perhaps even without our awareness for as St. Paul said – the spirit prays for us even when we are unable.
I love the way things work out sometimes – God’s intervention, (with a sense of humor) serendipity? On World Communion Sunday, more people came to church than were expected, and they ran out of communion cups. Adapting on the spur of the moment, Don invited the remaining communicants to share the common cup. As the people came, he realized that Mary and Margie would be beside each other. His gut reaction was to pray to drop through the floor and disappear. But when he gave the chalice to Mary, she drank and passed it to Margie and all went on as it should. Rev. Wall closes his story by saying: “As the choir sang the Amen, I went out of the door of the sanctuary, and as the congregation began to file out, I prayed: ‘Lord, let now your servant depart in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation.’ As 1 John said it – his joy was complete.
There are so many ways we can be open to being enriched by change. I recall such an event in Whistler. When I got the job as the United Church minister, a couple in the church offered me their beautiful lakeside home, which was for sale, for only $500/mo. I lived there from Oct. to May when the house sold. Not having the time to look for a new place – nor could I afford one on a $10,000 per annum salary, I basically trusted God to figure it out. Doesn’t sound very Unitarian, does it? A few weeks after the house sold, the realtor called and said that the buyers were also United Church folk and would like to offer me the same rent that I was currently paying for their 4 bedroom, lakeside condo. I later learned that the identical condo next door rented for $2200 a month. I doubt that I would have found such a deal on my own.
In this post Easter season, we are fresh from the wonder of the story of resurrection. Physical fact or spiritual metaphor – such mystery can be our reality. The choice to believe and walk in the light is ours -choosing to be alive in the Spirit of Christ, acknowledging and learning from our errors, and becoming one with the light and with one another. This is a long lived fellowship with deep roots and a significant history. Let us share our lives with one another in faith, walking in the light of the stories of the gospels and other wisdom traditions, and as we do, may we trust that we will grow in numbers, in faith, and in joy that renews us and our community.
May it be so.
Rev. Barbara Gilday