Harmony, Unity, Hope

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
December 8, 2013
Romans 15:4-13


Harmony, Unity, Hope

15:4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.
15:5 May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus,
15:6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15:7 Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
15:8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs,
15:9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name";
15:10 and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people";
15:11 and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him";
15:12 and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope."
15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When I started preparing today’s sermon, I gravitated right away to the beautiful soaring phrases in the text:

Phrases like

The God of steadfastness and encouragement …

live in harmony with one another…

with one voice glorify God …
Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you…


Praise the Lord…

and so forth.

Preachers sometimes have a blind spot in the texts they preach—sections that their eyes skip over. For me, that blind spot was all this stuff in the middle about the Gentiles v. the circumcised ones (which means Jews) and this business about whom exactly Christ came to save. It seemed very boggy to me to get into all of that.

But the more I lived with this text, the more I realized that that stuff about the Jews and the Gentiles was the crux of the whole text.

If you read the book of Acts, the story of the early church, it’s clear that one of the church’s central struggles is the one Paul addresses here in Romans, and specifically in this text. Now that Jesus is no longer with the disciples, the early leaders of the church had to decide—what exactly is this nascent movement? Is it a sect of Judaism, the next chapter in that religion’s evolution, or is it something more? Just how far is this good news of Jesus meant to travel?

The way I read this conflict, I see at least three views at play:

1. The message of Jesus is first and foremost for the Jewish people. Jesus was a Jew, after all, and was speaking primarily to folks in his own tribe.

2. The message of Jesus is for everyone, but non-Jews need to become Jews first in order to be full participants in this Christian movement.

3. The message of Jesus is for everyone, period.

Paul went to jail preaching that third option: an expansive gospel that was for everyone.

This conflict seems almost silly to us now.
It seems so obvious that the Jesus who said Go into all the world and make disciples and baptize
the Jesus who spoke to a Samaritan woman at the well,
and for that matter, the Jesus who was born in a barn under the most humble circumstances, would not just be talking to a small select group of the right kind of people, but would be offering abundant life to all of us, everyone. 

So the conflict seems like old news. On the other hand, this matter of who is in and who is out, who is with us and who is against us, who is worthy of our time and our help, who is deserving of God’s love and acceptance, is still very much with us.

We’ve been working on a new website at IPC, so I’ve been looking through our old website, including my favorite page: “Why I Chose Idylwood.” These are testimonies of what the church has meant to different folks in our congregation. Here is a story from some church members about when they first started visiting the church:

Jim Sirbaugh, the pastor at the time, took the pulpit as he did many Sundays before, but this time he said something that made me stop dead in my tracks.  He quoted Walter Brueggemann, saying that the covenant God made with the Chosen People, the Jews, has not been overcome or set aside by the covenant God made through Jesus Christ with others of God’s children.  Rather, Christians are now included in the promises God made then and has never forsaken.

This is why we chose Idylwood.  Idylwood includes people; it does not turn people away because they are different.  Fortunately, Idylwood rejoices in those differences to help our church grow stronger. 

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

*          *          *

It’s worth remembering that Paul wrote these words of unity and hope from within the walls of a jail cell. This masterwork of theology and faith was written by an imprisoned man.

The world has lost a giant this week, a humble and great man who also inspired people from a prison cell. Nelson Mandela rallied a local and global community to speak out against the evils of apartheid in South Africa, and he did so from a maximum security prison where he worked in a limestone quarry, day after excruciating day.

He had been a vigorous, even militant, force for the rights of blacks in South Africa before his imprisonment. When he was finally free, he faced a choice. Would he help heal the wounds of his country? Or would he make sure that that white South Africans paid for the generations of oppression they had inflicted on his black brothers and sisters?

Mandela faced that choice… but it’s the choice we all have, at one level or another, when we have experienced loss, or injustice, or suffering. It’s the choice Paul faced as he came to terms with the fact that he would likely live the remainder of his days as a prisoner. Will we let loss and injustice continue to diminish us? To hold us captive? Or will we, with the Holy Spirit’s help, choose the harder and better part, to let our lives give witness to God’s liberation and peace? Will we be “filled with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”?

We all know the choice that Mandela made. Here is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in the Washington Post this weekend:

The truth is that the 27 years Madiba, as he was known, spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathize with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up, and his developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, prison seemed to add an understanding of the human condition. [He became] like a most precious diamond formed deep beneath the surface of the Earth.

Mandela’s posture toward his oppressors has been encapsulated in the quote that has been shared on so many Facebook walls and in memoriam stories:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

Mandela embodied Paul’s words about harmony in countless ways:

He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest.

He invited the man who led the state’s case against him at the Rivonia Trial, calling for the imposition of the death penalty, to lunch at his presidential office.

And in 1995, when the South African rugby team made it to the World Cup final in Johannesburg, he attended the festivities wearing South African colors and the Springbok team emblem, a symbol that had been hated by black South Africans during apartheid. His presence and his clothing brought the crowd of 60,000 to its feet. They chanted "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!" as the president congratulated the victorious home team in a moment that symbolized profound racial reconciliation.

Elsewhere in Paul’s letters he writes about “clothing ourselves with Christ.” That day back in ’95, the clothing of Christ included South African colors and the Springbok rugby logo.

*          *          *

In closing I’d like to share a story about a congregation in small-town Pennsylvania, and their pastor, Kathryn, who is a friend of mine. Kathryn has served the church for several years and has had a vibrant ministry there. The congregation recently found itself confronting Paul’s challenging words about unity, harmony and welcome.

Kathryn, who has been a single parent for the past few years, found herself falling in love, and began the slow process of letting her congregation know that she now had a special person in her life.

Her beloved’s name is Martha.

It was surprising news to this traditional congregation in the middle of Pennsylvania. Reactions were mixed. Many were supportive, seeing Kathryn’s happiness and wholeness in this relationship, realizing that she was still fundamentally the pastor they had known and loved. They saw an opportunity to extend to their pastor the grace and welcome of Christ himself.

And many vocal people were not supportive, pointing to Bible verses that, they claim, are clear in condemning the relationship that Kathryn and Martha share.

As the conversations continued over many months, the time came for the congregational meeting in which the church would be voting on Kathryn’s terms of call—her compensation. This is usually pro forma in congregations, but for Kathryn, this vote would be a referendum on her ministry.

Her detractors got the word out that anyone who agreed with them in condemning this relationship should wear black and white to church that Sunday. The colors were meant to represent that this is a clear, unambiguous black and white issue—a struggle between what is right and what is wrong.

Kathryn found out about this plan, and when she walked into the church building that morning, she had no idea what she would find.

What if everyone was wearing black and white?

Would she be able to find another job?

How would she take care of her family?

What if everybody hated her and what she had done to their church?

Kathryn sequestered herself in the office, refusing to peek as people congregated for worship. She decided she would walk into the sanctuary, and she would know.

She writes this:

What we witnessed [as we walked into the sanctuary] was the most awesome array of colors one has ever seen on a random October Sunday morning. There were purples and reds and yellows and oranges and blues – the Sanctuary looked like a turned over bucket of crayons.

I thought maybe I was imagining that it was a bit more colorful that usual, but really there was no denying it. After the service I was told that the word had gotten around about the black and white movement, and people had responded by wearing their coats and sweaters and shirts of many colors. I saw some seriously ridiculous multicolored ties on men you would not think owned anything other than blue or brown. One woman told me she went out and bought the brightest dress she could find.

(Clothe yourselves with Christ…!)

The church, it should be said, is still living into what it means to support Kathryn and Martha as they continue to be knit together as a family. It hasn’t always been easy. But on that day, this group of Christ-followers exemplified Paul’s highest ideals:

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

…Because sometimes that “one glorifying voice” looks like a turned over bucket of crayons.

Thanks be to God.


Many thanks to Kathryn Z. Johnston, pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church, for granting permission to share her story.


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©2013 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.