Still Praying After All These Years

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I don't know if The Protestant Hour is a regular stop on your radio dial or if you're here by accident. Either way, I'm glad you stopped by. The radio has become steady company for lots of people. I have friends in New York City who fit their social calendar around Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion on Saturday nights. And these friends are not transplants from the midwest, they're life-long New Yorkers who have never worn a seed corn hat. There's something about Keillor's stories that gets under the skin of folks who've never lived in a small Minnesota town. His very particular characters seem to get at something deeper than our differences. Listen to his words from Lake Wobegon Days ~ it's never completely clear whether he is talking about himself or somebody who's just like himself.

"In a town where everyone was either Lutheran or Catholic, we were neither one. We were Sanctified Brethren, a sect so tiny that nobody but us and God knew about it, so when kids asked what I was, I just said Protestant. It was too much to explain, like having six toes. You would rather keep your shoes on.

It is even easier to say, "Christian" ~ or "I'm a spiritual person." It is hard to explain. Christians are divided into at least three large groups ~ Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant (with some who wouldn't claim any of the three). Anglicans are not quite Roman Catholic or Protestant but somewhere in between. And Protestants are further divided into United Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists of many kinds, Lutherans, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Assemblies of God. There are denominations known to many by their initials. UCC, AME and AME Zion, RCA and COGIC. And somewhere along the line Garrison Keillor's Sanctified Brethren, a small sect known only to the people who gathered in his aunt and uncle's living room on folding chairs.

It's too hard to explain it all, we'd rather keep our shoes on.

What has happened to Jesus' prayer in the gospel of John? "Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one." Now you might remind the preacher that Jesus was praying for a small group of twelve disciples. But, Jesus' prayer doesn't end with today's reading. In the following verses, Jesus goes on, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who come to believe in me through their word, that they may all be one." That is, Jesus is praying also for you and me. When we hear this chapter of John it's like overhearing a great pastoral prayer. We could imagine Jesus ending each section with the words, "Lord, in you mercy" and the whole church responding, "hear our prayer."

Jesus is still praying after all these years, praying "that they may be one." Is the answer then to get rid of denominations? Some experts in church growth suggest removing denominational names from church bulletin boards. "Grace Church" rather than "Grace Presbyterian Church. Should we be working to merge all the churches into one? Even if that could be accomplished, is that what Jesus was praying for? Jesus didn't map out a program but it seems clear that his prayer was for oneness, not sameness. Jesus didn't even pray that all believers would agree. And it became clear in Paul's letters that the early communities of believers had many disagreements. Jesus didn't pray that all would merge. It is true that denominations can be seen as signs of human brokenness; but denominations can also be seen as gifts. If we remember then the source of our oneness is not in human structures but in Jesus Christ. As Bishop Bill Lazareth used to remind us, "Lutheran is an adjective not a noun!" There are Lutheran Christians and Methodist Christians, Roman Catholic Christians and Baptist Christians. AME Christians and Mennonite Christians. Each group brings a particular perspective to understanding the Gospel and following the way of Jesus. But isn't it better to be "non-denominational"? I know that non-denominational churches are appealing ~ but they can also be dangerous. It's surely possible for me to be overly prideful in saying , "I am a Lutheran." But it's also possible to be prideful about having no denominational name at all. Shortly after I began my work as pastor in New York, a woman from the neighborhood came to see me. "I'm not a Lutheran," she said without apology. "My church is non denominational." She had come to invite me to a new study group. As we talked, it became apparent to me that her church was shaped by the writings of a certain minister. One of the books she showed me was titled Christianity Can Be Profitable. It was about making money and it was written by her minister. Technically, she was right her church was "non denominational." But it was probably more accurate to say it was a very small denomination defined by one minister and those who followed his teachings.

Denominations can be seen as gifts, reminders of the larger, global family which is Christ's Church. Whenever I say, I'm a Lutheran Christian I am mindful that there are others with different adjectives who name the name of Jesus. They have something to teach me for we are shaped not only by those who are like us, but by those who are different. If our oneness is in Jesus Christ, then we can speak across our differences without destroying or being destroyed. We might even come to celebrate our differences as a fuller expression of the body of Christ. It is all right to raise your arms in ecstatic praise or to sit quietly in worship barely moving an eyebrow. It is all right to pass small glasses filled with grape juice and it is all right o kneel at the altar to drink glasses filled with grape juice and it is all right to kneel at the altar to drink wine from a common cup. Some see bishops as the most faithful way to order the church while others will have nothing to do with bishops. Our oneness is not in human constructions or constitutions, not in popes or councils. Jesus Christ is the source of our oneness.

Many people continue to join with Jesus in praying that we might be one, even with all our differences. That prayer took on new meaning fifty years ago in 1948. Much of Europe still lay in shambles after World War II when church leaders from many nations came together to form the World Council of Churches. Imagine the scene in Amsterdam fifty years ago. Dutch Christians sitting down with those who had occupied their country. German Christians praying with Americans who had bombed their cities. Oneness didn't mean speaking the same language. Nor did it mean the same liturgical styles. That first assembly included the Orthodox churches with elaborate worship, icons and incense alongside Reformed churches with simple sanctuaries and few vestments. But together they promised to seek the oneness of Jesus' prayer: "We have committed ourselves afresh to Christ and have covenanted with one another in constituting this World Council of Churches. We intend to stay together."

Fifty years have passed since that day in Amsterdam. The Council has doubled in size embracing over 310 member churches from around the world. These churches have not merged, each continues to have its own liturgies and leadership. Most of the new members come from the southern hemisphere ~ Africa, parts of Asia, Central and South America. Gatherings of the council are far more colorful than that meeting in 1948 when delegates were almost all white men in black suits! The Council has been criticized by some for being too political. Members from the poorest nations have wondered if the wealthy churches of Scandinavia, Europe and North America accept them as equal partners. But they are still together after fifty years, held together by the prayer of Jesus. It hasn't been easy. It is never easy to talk with someone whose ideas are different, especially when the ideas are as deep as our belief in God. It is easier to believe that my church is the one that's right (and if I don't talk to anybody else, I might continue to believe that.) But there's a great loss in staying to ourselves; we miss out on seeing the fullness of the body of Christ. We miss the good news told by Christians in Ethiopia, one of the fastest growing churches in the world. We miss the wonder of the open-air worship service in Tanzania when 10,000 people stood from 2:00 to 7:00 to celebrate the installation of a new bishop. And the entire crowd was fed with chicken and coca cola! We miss the miracle that took place when famine and civil war struck northern Africa; while government food shipments were stuck on the docks because of Civil War; the World Council of Churches joined other religious relief agencies to feed two million people every day. None of our churches could have accomplished this miracle alone.

Jesus is still praying after all these years. Praying fervently that some day all Christians will join hands around the same communion table. Praying that our differences will not divide us but will reveal more and more fully the many-colored body of Christ. It can be frightening to open ourselves to Christians whose language and worship styles are different from our own or whose social stands we do not share. But maybe it's time to encourage the young boy in Lake Wobegon to take his shoes off ~ to tell people he's part of the Sanctified Brethren, and if you don't know what that is, well he can tell you, and you can tell him about your church. Who knows? You both might end up with your shoes off, standing on holy ground.

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