No Less Than Our Whole Selves
What a blessing it has been to be together for these past few days! We have learned so much. We have shared so many stories, so much joy, so much pain. We have so much work to do. We have celebrated and are preparing to recognize today some of the many among us who have gifts for leadership.
My hope and prayer is that today, like the people to whom the epistle was written, we might be “encouraged to live as people worthy of the call [we] received from God.” How many of you are here because of a call from God? Not a call from a leader of your Methodist or Uniting Church women's organization, not a call from a friend, but a call from God? The epistle lesson for this session, the call that we received from God, is our call to faith, the beckoning of God to our hearts and minds, the conviction of our souls that we have heard a voice not of ourselves but that of a “still, small voice” and our own willingness to respond in faith. Friends, we have each received the call—and God continues to call each one of us. God calls each of us here and each one of the women and men among whom we serve. God longs to love us, or surprise us, or impel us into the kin-dom. Have you heard God calling over the years? Do you hear God call in the voice of the children who are hungry? Do you hear God call in the voice of the mothers who are in pain? God invites us to say “yes” to this call over and over again.
God has called you. God has called us. God has called us to know Christ in whose life we see the fulfillment of the “good news” and to live the gospel, individually and as units and as an organization so that we can be part of the reconciliation for which all of creation waits with eager longing.
The text for today, Ephesians 4:1-7, is an important one, and we know this because the writer begins by reminding the readers of his credentials as a prisoner. Being here together in South Africa reminds us of others who were imprisoned for their beliefs—famously, Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC—but I want to mention that last Tuesday Johannesburg was celebrating National Women's Day, and I had the opportunity on that day to visit Constitution Hill, the site of a prison where Winnie Mandela and Albertine Sisulu and many others were held in response to their resistance to apartheid. Their pictures, their statements, and the tears that were shed when the prison became a place of honor—the site of the Constitutional Court and the Commission on Gender Equality—perhaps this reminds us of what is implied when the writer relies on his “status” as a prisoner to support his message.
At Robbins Island, the leaders were drawn away from the dailyness of the movement. The current display at the Apartheid Museum include some quotes from President Mandela indicating what a crucible this time became in forging a focus on resistance and reconciliation that included a long view. Only in the long view could there be hope. Perhaps something similar happened for Paul as he was detained, away from the busy schedule of preaching and travel. This letter definitely charges the community of believers to take the long view and to “live as people worthy of the call you received from God.”
Have you been called? Have we been called?
In any event, it is from this context that the writer addresses one of the “hot button” issues of the day in this letter: the relationship between the Gentile believers and the Jewish believers. You know how it is; some issues can be counted on to create controversy. Once they are engaged, the whole community has taken sides. The letter writer directs the believers to make an effort to preserve unity.
We talked this morning about the Jewish–Samaritan conflict, and here we have instructions about the conflict between Jews and Greeks. Both Peter and Paul had addressed racial, ethnic and political barriers before. You'll remember from the book of Acts that Peter hesitatingly crossed barriers, going to Cornelius's house (accompanied by six men—Peter was brave but not foolish). He expected trouble. Yet not only was he welcomed there, but as an additional sign of God's grace, Peter had a vision that he took to heart. As he traveled, he experienced non-Jews coming to faith and being filled with the Spirit. Finally, he went to Jerusalem to report to the General Conference—I mean the Council. You know what happened: lots of talking. Arguments made based on the core texts and patterns of worship and meaning. Finally, Peter won limited approval of his mission. Later, Saul, known as Paul, had to go and make almost the same case, and after much debate Gentiles were allowed a little further into the fellowship.
In the first century, aliens and strangers were viewed with suspicion. Life was risky. Israel was an occupied territory. Even the design of the temple demonstrated that some people could not be permitted close to the holy place. There was an inner area, restricted to priests (all of whom came from one tribe), an outer area restricted to Jews (a court for God-fearers who were not of the 12 tribes) and an area restricted to women. Methodist and Uniting Church Women, we might have had something to say about that!
What do we have to say about our own contexts? It would be very easy for us to say that “that was then” and “this is now,” but some of us know the risk of living in occupied territory. Some of us know the risks of reaching out to people who are not part of the dominant population. Some of us know what it is like to be part of the dominated population. Some of us have migrated so far and so often that we aren't sure where “home” is—we may find ourselves to be strangers and aliens wherever we are. Sounds like we have some things in common with the first century.
So what are the issues that we address? Boundaries of all sorts divide people, sometimes even dividing families, and keep people separated from the resources that would enable us to flourish. So many of us living in countries that are more willing to spend on war than they we are to spend on education. So many nations are more ready to despoil land by mining and development in fragile places than to nurture the fertility of the earth. So many of our nations depend on low wage labor to enrich those who are already wealthy. As Bishop Nhanala reminded us this week, persons of ill will can use our cultures and traditions to divide us for their own ends, more like the Tower of Babel than like Pentacost.
So what is the World Federation to do? We must not allow the culture to control us, to magnify our differences rather than our commonalities, and we must seek mechanisms of effective resistance. Let me share some glimmers:
- The United Methodist Women of Sierra Leone made a courageous statement several months ago calling for leaders to address the negative impact of tribalism in their country.
- Methodist missionaries in Japan are addressing the needs of migrant populations that were neglected by the government response following the nuclear reactor crisis at Fukushima Daiichi.
- Many regions of the World Federation, including United Methodist Women in the United States, are combating human trafficking working to strengthen laws, enlist corporations engaged in the tourist industry and mounting information campaigns around events like the World Cup, the Super Bowl and the Olympics.
- Methodist and Uniting Church women are working both through compassionate care and for systemic action to change the condition of migrant peoples in our countries.
- Methodist and Uniting Church women around the world and across the centuries have seen the pain of division and stood against racism and sexism and all of the other “isms” that divide and marginalize people.
We must keep on. Bambalela, we must hold on. We must work with the long view in mind. The text calls us to “make an effort” to preserve the unity of the Spirit. Sometimes the hardest place to do this is within the church. Sometimes our interpretations take us in different directions, and our very structures impede work that needs to be done. Language, culture and tradition can be used as barriers or can be unintended barriers. Some of these questions are very pressing. There is recent pain within our World Methodist fellowship over disunity. We heard this in the report from Sweden last evening, and we recognize the pain experienced recently in the Philippines as conferences disassociate, and we struggle as migrating peoples navigate life in regions with expressions of Methodism that are foreign to them. We also continue to have pain within our denominations over differences with regard to sexual orientation. We are called to effort-filled work to listen to the Spirit as well as humility and patience that might make us open to hearing God's still, small voice.
In the opening gathering, when we described our purpose for coming together we said, “We have come to tear down that which does not edify and to build up that which will bless others.” The one God of all charges us to work for acceptance across the most entrenched dividing lines.
This is a call from God!
It is also a task with which our shared Wesleyan heritage and the accounts from Peter and Paul may help us:
- We read the scripture together. Peter and Paul based their arguments on the reading of Scripture when they came before the Jerusalem Council. They discussed and debated its meaning, just as we did in our bible study.
- Prayer. Seeking God's will. Waiting on the Lord. Enlisting the prayers of others, just as you have enlisted the prayers of others for this meeting.
- Telling the story of what God has done and where we have seen the Holy Spirit moving. It's no good praying for God to come to us and to bless us if we can see that God is at work and we are not willing to be part of it.
- Critical thinking. Wesley called the followers to use “reason” as part of what they bring to their understanding of faith. He read widely and addressed structures that caused some of the social ills of his day. This is not a call to be negative. Critical thinking calls us to analyze. To reflect. To ask who is benefiting from the “status quo,” as Dr. Moyo called us to do this morning about our own structures.
- Christian Conferencing we come together. We share stories. We listen to one another. We ask questions. We argue. We invite God to change us by the experiences we share.
In short, we are to do just what we've done this week and allow ourselves to hear the call of God anew, emerging equipped to tackle the dividing walls in our units, our denominations and in the world. Building great wells of strength from our shared work and struggle. We rely on these disciplines of life that Wesley called “means of grace” so the grace of God can speak to our hearts and transforms us, “sanctifying” us, so that we can live in a way that is worthy of our calling.
His grace, says the epistle writer, is the gift of God, a pure gift. Not something earned by a worthy life but something that results in a worthy life.
God has given his grace to each one of us measured out by the gift that is given by Christ
I want to particularly remind the incoming officers and others among us who are stretching and risking by taking on new roles and responsibilities—this amazing grace is measured out by Christ's gift. Sisters, do you have ears to hear? This grace is measured out by Christ's gift. It is not measured out by our skills. It is not measured out by our experience. It is not measured out by our struggles or our education or our family connections. It is “measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.” Of course we bring our whole selves into our work—our accents, our musicality, our artistic ability, our disabilities. God asks for no less than our whole selves, scars and all.
We have spoken together about self-esteem and its importance, and I will not address that further here, but I do want to observe that our woundedness may be just the place that God could start to work a new work among us, if we are willing. Our scars may be just the thing that helps someone else see the hand of God at work. Our fear may be the thing that reminds us to turn again to God for strength and guidance. We know from our history that the women's missionary societies in many denominations sent single women to “home” and “foreign” missions when no one else would send them. They taught women to organize and manage and lead when that was not their accepted role and they recognized gifts that some of the women didn't even know they had. They honored the vision of the women called to be deaconesses long before the protestant church honored the call to women to take these sorts of responsibility. That history of limitation became the history of the work of God. Similarly, some of our mission work reflected the racism and cultural imperialism of its day. No doubt, some of our work together still bears that burden. Each of us is marked by this, though in different ways. Some of us carry the burden of oppression and others carry the burden of having been oppressed. We must find ways forward, recognizing that we are marked by these scars and systems and we must allow the grace of God, “measured out by the gift that is given by Christ” to tear down the dividing walls and build us up in the unity of the Spirit. Perhaps through God's mercy, when our sisters come to celebrate the work of the next quinqennium, they may be able to see how God's overflowing grace was expressed in the very places of our woundedness and alienation.
May we, like the women who came before us, offer our own scars, our own abilities and our whole selves to live lives worthy of the call of God, through God's grace, a pure gift, that is measured out by the gift that is given by Christ.
May it be so. Amen.