THE BLESSINGS OF UNITY -- A Sermon
I am currently reading Keith Watkins' book The American Church that Might Have Been: A History of the Consultation on Church Union. Keith has written an important history of COCU, a review of which will follow when I've finished reading the book, that tells the story of a a visionary attempt to embody unity in an organic union of what were Mainline Protestant Churches, minus a few, into a church that could stand at the center of American society and contribute to remaking the future. The founders saw themselves as a counterweight to the Roman Catholic Church. The vision was cast by Eugene Carson Blake, the Stated Clerk of the United Presbyterian Church (northern branch of what became the PCUSA, at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1960. For more than forty years great effort was expended on finding a mechanism that could bridge differing theologies and structures. It was also revolutionary in that among the denominations participating three were historically black churches. For good or ill that vision never came to fruition and in 2002 COCU ended its life and emerged as a new entity -- Churches Uniting in Christ. Realizing that structural union was not happening, these denominations sought a new way of exhibiting unity, one of which was through sharing together at the Table. As I was reflecting on the book, I thought about the service we held locally in Santa Barbara, where we sought to celebrate the inauguration of the new entity. Unfortunately in the dozen years since that inaugural event, CUiC has lost much of its momentum. That said, I remembered that I had preached a sermon at that service, and I thought I would share it -- as it expresses my own sense of the importance of pursuing unity. I was at the time Pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara.
In a recent TV commercial, a teenager comes down for dinner, tosses aside a toddler's booster seat and sits down in the chair. Soon, the rest of the family joins him at the dinner table. This commercial for a new frozen dinner then asks the question: "When was the last time you sat down for dinner together?" Of course, this contrast between the booster seat and the teenager suggests that it has indeed been a long time, perhaps even years, since they last sat down together at the table.
Tonight as we gather at this table, we come from a variety of churches and traditions, and I need to ask the same question of us. When was the last time that the body of Christ sat down together for dinner? I expect it has been a long time. Oh, we may have snacked together, but when did we last sit down for dinner?
Today is a historic day for the Christian community, because we have come to eat at the Lord's Table as the body of Christ. Of course, we're not all here, and that is unfortunate. It means we still have a lot of work to do! Still, I'm not deterred by this, because I know that tonight is only a beginning of what will come. Next time we'll have more representation, and the next time even more. We will begin to build bridges to each other.
It is unfortunate that when the world looks at the church, it sees division and misunderstanding. It is unfortunate that the world sees segregation in the churches along racial, economic, and social lines. Tonight we come to confess that we have not lived up to God's calling for the church to be one body of Christ. But, as we come tonight, we also commit ourselves to the task of bringing justice and reconciliation to our world. If all we do tonight is eat a piece of bread dipped in juice or wine, then we have missed the point. Tonight we come to bring a witness to our community that we are people of God. Yes, by coming to the table, we witness to the oneness of Christ's church: One loaf, one cup, one body.
I have long believed in what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, that the cup and the loaf are signs of our unity as Christians. I have longed to intentionally share these symbols of Christ's body and blood with my brothers and sisters from other Christian traditions. So, tonight for me, that dream has come to fruition.
Tonight's service comes at a most auspicious time. First, this is Martin Luther King weekend, a time when we as a nation pause to remember one who gave his life for the cause of reconciliation of the human family. For Christians, this is also the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And finally, this is the day in which nine Protestant denominations inaugurate a new relationship that is to be called Churches Uniting in Christ.
What we do here tonight is linked to a service that was held earlier today in Memphis, Tennessee. There in the city where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated more than thirty years ago, representatives of the nine churches listed on the front of your bulletins, inaugurated a new relationship that was consummated in worship at the Table of the Lord. We come tonight to give our assent to that new relationship, but we also want say that we can't be content with the extent of the relationship. We intend to go beyond these few churches to embrace a greater and greater portion of God's church in Santa Barbara in common worship and service. As a step in that direction, I'm pleased that we have Lutheran representation in this service. Though the Evangelical Lutheran Church is not yet a member of the Churches Uniting in Christ, it is moving toward membership, and so tonight we have three Lutheran clergy getting a head start!
Some of you may have asked the question, why is this important? Why are we here tonight? I realize that each of us could go to each other's churches and take communion with no questions asked. But how often do we do it all together? By coming here tonight we are saying to each other that while we may not agree on everything, including the meaning of the elements in communion, we affirm each other as God's children. And we commit ourselves to each other to achieve justice and peace and an end to racism in our world. We could do this in other ways, and we have, but there is something powerful about doing this in the context of worship. Therefore, in spite of our differences in doctrine and practice, we come tonight to declare to our community and to each other that we are servants of a common Lord. We also want to say to our community, we want to be a blessing to you!
The Psalmist writes words of truth:
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
Now, that is family values talk, because it is good when we sit together as family in unity. Like most families this family doesn't always agree on everything, but unless we come to the table and eat together we'll never really experience true family life. For forty years these nine denominations that make up Churches Uniting in Christ have been talking about how to be family. Tonight we become family and we do this by eating together. Yes, how very good and pleasant it is when families live together in unity.
Having eaten at the table together, we will experience God's blessings. Having been blessed by God and empowered by the Spirit, we can go out into the world and together bring justice to our land. It is appropriate that this new relationship, which is known by its acronym of CUiC is being inaugurated on Martin Luther King weekend. One of the pillars of this new relationship is a common commitment to eradicate racism and bigotry from our land. Now this is a tall order, which will take time to accomplish, but hopefully next time we gather, we'll have a more diverse crowd gathering at the table. I hope that we will have more participation from Black, Hispanic, and Asian churches so that can live out Martin Luther King's dream of a new world where prejudice and hatred have disappeared.
We still have a long way to go before the church is truly reflective of the body of Christ. The church is still battling the tendency toward segregation, but tonight we commit ourselves to making this dream come true by coming to the table.
There is great blessing in coming to the Table in unity. Having been blessed by coming to this table, we can go out into the world in which we live and serve as ambassadors of reconciliation among all peoples.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
CUiC Inauguration Service
First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) of Santa Barbara
January 20, 2002