"A Common Thread to Consider”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – June 29, 2014

Centenary United Methodist Church

Acts 5:33-40; Acts 11:1-10, 17-18


*International Sunday

    An excellent conversation-starter among Christians is to consider what is happening all over the world as various ethnic cultures are accelerating toward each other.  There are violent struggles taking place in many regions as many ethnic groups move closer together even though a number of them are doing so unwillingly.

    Could it be that we are witnessing what our words have been expressing through the years?   The common mantra that many believers affirm is that “God is in charge.”   This understanding may provide us with a different point of view as we think about the drama taking place on humanity’s stage.

    The United States, for example, could never have anticipated the movement of 52,000 children crossing its southern borders.  Most of them are not being accompanied by adults.  With all the diplomatic failures from our politicians and military leaders, Brazil has brought the world’s people together by being the sponsoring nation of the World Cup.  Russia was the center of attention when it hosted the Winter Olympics a short time ago.  Massive changes are taking place during our life-time.

    My grandfather was a telegraph operator during World War II.  When soldiers returned to the States, they brought back bank notes from almost every country they visited.  He arranged them in a loose leaf book that eventually came to me. Today, many of those countries no longer exist.  They have different names, others have been partitioned so that where there was one country, there are now several.  Their economies, once in an inflationary shambles, are now extremely prosperous.   My grandfather’s collection had a German note worth $10,000 Marcs.   

    While we think that the world is even more divided along ethnic-lines than at any other time in history, this recognition may represent something quite different.  What is taking place may be symbolic of ethnic groups clinging to a genetic pedigree that will be impossible to sustain in a world that is rapidly changing. The lines that once marked the borders of countries have become blurred and are even dissolving. 

    As more people flee the war zones and set up refugee camps in neighboring nations, people will meet other ethnic strangers.  Because the common need of survival often rises above differences, the beliefs that once divided them will no longer be of importance.

    When I was the pastor of Capitol Hill United Methodist Church, a psychiatrist friend of mine wrote something for our Capitol Hill Group Ministries’ Newsletter during the week when Americans were celebrating Thanksgiving.  This is part of what he wrote:

Within the course of a week, I come into contact with people living within a half mile from my house who have adopted America as their home.  The person who bakes bread for my family is from France.  My dry cleaning is done by Asians.  There is an Italian tailor who alters my pants.  Two of my colleagues are from Pakistan and Germany.  We have Greek, Cambodian and Chinese cuisines within walking distance.  My favorite bank teller is from India.  The operator of the Texaco station where my auto repairs are done is from Korea.  One of his mechanics is from Lebanon.  Our shrubs and lawn are meticulously maintained by landscape artists from Mexico.  My personal physician is from the Philippines.  My ophthalmologist is from Ghana. My accountant came from Israel.   

    The world is becoming a melting pot and that is worth celebrating.  A number of governments appear to need violent confrontations before they get the message that becoming trading partners is far more profitable than burying their family members on the fields of battle.  Members of Centenary have toured in nations that were in heated wars during their lifetimes.  Coming together is the work of our Creator.  This is how we were wired.  This is who we are.  This is what we do.  It will take time, however, for all of us to define our destiny in the same manner.  God, however, is very patient.

    Today, as we celebrate International Sunday, we recognize how remarkable it is to have come this far within our lifetime.  Every person has the same basic needs and desires.  We are all curious about one another.  We have an energy that wants us to unravel many of the mysteries of life and share our findings with what our research has discovered.

    This morning, both passages of Scripture that Valerie read to us came from the Book of Acts.  These Scriptures were chosen because they come from Doctor Luke’s memory of the earliest experiences of those that were following the way of Jesus.  The Book of Acts is quite extraordinary.  It describes various changes in the thinking of the Jews toward others who were beginning to believe differently. These were not casual departures from Judaism, they were radical changes.

    It took a man like Gamaliel, whose wisdom had been respected for years by the Jewish leadership, to persuade the Sanhedrin to leave the disciples of Jesus alone.  He reminded them of several instances when disruptive leaders and their followers came out of no where and vanished almost as quickly.  He added, “If this new movement is from God, you cannot possibly defeat them.  You might even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:39f) 

    The second lesson describes the criticism that came from the Jewish followers of Jesus as they verbally scolded the Apostle Peter for what he had done.  They said, “You entered the home of a Roman Centurion and you ate with his family?  What were you thinking?”  (Acts 11:3)  It was forbidden for a Jew to associate with uncircumcised Gentiles and to eat food that was not kosher.  Peter had done both and told his listeners that he was directed to do so by God.

    Is God’s presence in Creation the thread that is missing in our discussions of what is happening everywhere in the world?  People are coming together in spite of their differences.  It is interesting how the barriers fall when people get to know each other over a cup of tea.

    There will come a time when today’s concerns simply will not exist.  Why should it matter that some Christians surround themselves with images of St. Agnes, St. Francis, St. Angela, or St. Christopher?  Why should it matter that some people want to celebrate their freedom from Egypt and honor the Sabbath on Saturday?   Why should it matter that some people believe that they are the only ones that God will lovingly bring into the next world?  Why should it matter that people believe that they have lived hundreds of lives while navigating their circle of rebirths? 

    What truly matters is not what individuals believe or the labels that we assign to each other.  What matters is what our faith, beliefs and labels have enabled us to produce.  Are we able to build diverse and peaceful communities in order to make our world a more wholesome and loving place for men and women to live?

    During the celebration of International Sunday in my former church, we invited a number of people to share experiences from their former church families.  A woman from Costa Rica told us of the role that lively hymns played in her worship services. Music literally reframed her attitudes. She told our congregation, “An hour or two of being lost in music and I was ready to take on anything the world brought into my life.”

    A woman from Nigeria shared that during her service, people gave testimonies of how God had participated in a decision they made, of how an experience of losing a husband had made a woman more self-reliant, of how a friend was saved from being a slave to alcohol and of how a couple had been blessed with a child when doctors had told the couple for years that child birth was impossible.  Sharing testimonies gave everyone hope of how interactive God remains in people’s lives.

    A third person from Liberia told how the church where she worshipped was financially poor.  During the rainy season, the roof leaked badly, the hymnals were in tatters and the earthen floor often turned into mud.   She said, “The joy generated by our services each Sunday was enough to help everyone to prepare for the next week by knowing how blessed we are.”

    Every participant had something fascinating to share.  The future of the Body of Christ will not depend on the conformity of believers in how faith should be expressed.  The future of the Church will depend on living what we say every Sunday – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It will depend on building a community where God’s will is done rather than praying for a day when such a Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

    The thread that ties all of us together is the recognition that God created us with basic human needs that are identical.  Our potential to care for each other has the power to override all our differences.  Those differences only exist in our minds and they become filtered and expressed through our attitudes.  If we want peace within ourselves, we must live knowing that peace for all of us is God’s will.  When we develop this collective understanding, making God’s will visible in our lives is something all of us can experience. 

*Nationalities represented in the congregation of Centenary United Methodist Church:  African, American, Austrian, Brazilian, Canadian, Danish, English, Filipino, Portuguese, Scottish, Spanish, Welch and West Indian.