Reformation Lutheran Church A Congregation of the ELCA

Unity vs. Uniformity

January 21-22, 2017 -- Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Luke 15:11-32, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20, and Psalm 133:1

It was my great privilege on Monday to attend the Martin Luther King Jr Worship Celebration sponsored by The Greater Wichita Ministerial League. That two-hour gathering included two choirs, a preacher from Houston who mentioned that his usual venue is much larger than the WSU Metropolitan Complex, some awards, a time to bring your own offering to the front (complete with credit card machines for your convenience), and stand up sit down arms uplifted praising God aerobics. It was spectacular!

It IS spectacular when we gather together. The Psalmist even proclaimed it: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Now, we were united on Monday, but we weren’t all of the same theology. There were significant numbers of people present who don’t believe in infant baptism. And, even as several female pastors took part in the worship celebration, there were some who don’t think women should ever be in church leadership. Those things didn’t matter much as we gathered on Monday because unity does not require uniformity. We can come together in focus about things with which we do agree without needing to agree about everything else. If we could all agree, there wouldn’t be 43,800 unique Christian denominations in the world right now. Yes, there are 43,800 denominations – less than 200 of them are Lutheran!

In spite of the great chasm of the Protestant Reformation, ALC, AELC, LCA, and now ELCA Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in specific, recognized dialogue for more than 50 years, and are celebrating the publication of Declaration on the Way – a book which clearly states our agreements (32 of them) and the things about which we cannot agree. Pope Francis was part of an ecumenical worship service at a Lutheran Church in Lund, Sweden, in October, as we began the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. Even five years ago, that would have been an impossibility.

We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Now most of the people involved in Monday’s celebration weren’t aware of this special week because it is largely a Roman Catholic celebration, established in 1908 by a Franciscan friar. After a century, it’s starting to make its way through mainline Protestant churches, but today, as we acknowledge this special week, Reformation Lutheran Church is definitely ahead of the trend curve!

Today’s Gospel text is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Most of us know this parable well, but we can always gather new understandings along the way. I am a younger sibling, a bit of a rebel, and I have always identified with the younger son in this story. But as I age, I realize that my patience is not as deep and wide as it should be for those new to the faith. Much to my chagrin, I now espouse many traits of the older brother. And of that, I am repenting.

As some of you know, I was given a kitten for Christmas. Actually, after years of not-so-subtle nagging, Gary consented. So I went to the Humane Society, filled out paperwork, learned that none of the cats I had chosen from the website were still available, and was won over by a kitten that I wasn’t completely sure would survive. Against my better judgment, I brought home the post-surgical, 2.9 pound sneezing 8-month old kitten. Now Keli the kitten was not coming into a cat-less home. We already had an 8-year-old torbie named Tabi whom we had rescued 6 years ago. Now Tabi had been a perfectly behaved adult cat up until Keli the kitten arrived at our house. When that happened, Tabi became that big brother in the Prodigal Parable. Keli received a lot of attention. Tabi growled. Keli had special food. Tabi hissed. Keli could leap onto beds and tables and draperies like Tabi once could, and Tabi was not the least bit pleased by this. If she could have spoken to me, I am sure Tabi would have presented me with a daily list of Keli’s sins. The older sister had forgotten that she had been young, carefree, and stupid not so long ago.As some of you know, I was given a kitten for Christmas. Actually, after years of not-so-subtle nagging, Gary consented. So I went to the Humane Society, filled out paperwork, learned that none of the cats I had chosen from the website were still available, and was won over by a kitten that I wasn’t completely sure would survive. Against my better judgment, I brought home the post-surgical, 2.9 pound sneezing 8-month old kitten. Now Keli the kitten was not coming into a cat-less home. We already had an 8-year-old torbie named Tabi whom we had rescued 6 years ago. Now Tabi had been a perfectly behaved adult cat up until Keli the kitten arrived at our house. When that happened, Tabi became that big brother in the Prodigal Parable. Keli received a lot of attention. Tabi growled. Keli had special food. Tabi hissed. Keli could leap onto beds and tables and draperies like Tabi once could, and Tabi was not the least bit pleased by this. If she could have spoken to me, I am sure Tabi would have presented me with a daily list of Keli’s sins. The older sister had forgotten that she had been young, carefree, and stupid not so long ago.

What is happening in my house is not so different from the two brothers in our story or, for that matter, the fights between and within churches. And that’s why today’s parable is so important. It gives us all of the reasons for the growling and hissing of the older brother, but it doesn’t tell us how the story ends. We leave the story with the Prodigal Father reasoning with his self-righteous older son. Neither Jesus -- who is telling the story-- nor Gospel writer Luke -- who is writing it down -- tell us what happens next. We want everyone to live happily ever after. But we know that there’s more to real life than just a parable. And so the answer to how the story ends becomes my story and yours. Our words and actions should reflect what we want to happen.

In marriages and families, in neighborhoods and communities, in this country and in this world, sometimes we’d rather stay angry than have some difficult but important conversation. And, like that older brother, we can come up with all kinds of arguments that reinforce our decisions and actions or inaction. And, most of the time, we’re not wrong, but that doesn’t mean we’re right in sharing it. Would you rather strive for war or for peace? Unity doesn’t require uniformity. We can disagree with people without condemning them. We can disagree with people we love and still love them. And, as our 2 Corinthians passage invites us to do, we can look at others through the lens of Christ’s forgiveness rather than focusing on that very long list of sins. “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” If God has the good sense to erase a sin or a thousand sins, it’s not our job to write them back in.In marriages and families, in neighborhoods and communities, in this country and in this world, sometimes we’d rather stay angry than have some difficult but important conversation. And, like that older brother, we can come up with all kinds of arguments that reinforce our decisions and actions or inaction. And, most of the time, we’re not wrong, but that doesn’t mean we’re right in sharing it. Would you rather strive for war or for peace? Unity doesn’t require uniformity. We can disagree with people without condemning them. We can disagree with people we love and still love them. And, as our 2 Corinthians passage invites us to do, we can look at others through the lens of Christ’s forgiveness rather than focusing on that very long list of sins. “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” If God has the good sense to erase a sin or a thousand sins, it’s not our job to write them back in.

Being in imperfect relationships with imperfect people is really nothing new. We have been sinners living in a broken world since Genesis 3. But we forget. We forget what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes. And, even more so, we forget that the story (not just this parable) isn’t really about the sins of either brother but is about the mercy of the loving father. That loving father is the one who stood waiting for the younger son and left the party to reason with the older son. That’s God who has mercy on all of us. And much as we want to focus on the faults of one or both of the brothers, we do best when we focus on the incredible father who lavishly forgives all.

Amen