13 Pentecost, Year A
13 Pentecost, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
In a New England city, a wealthy man gave a beautiful colonial church edifice as a family memorial. The kitchen was modern to the nth degree. After the dedication, however, a group of women in the church wanted to add to the kitchen equipment a newly invented electric automatic potato parer. It was a clever device by which potatoes were washed, scrubbed clean, then moved along a belt to a series of knives which peeled the potatoes and finally dropped them into a kettle for cooking.
But there was another group of women who strenuously objected to this newfangled gadget because it eliminated their happy custom of going early to the kitchen and paring the potatoes by hand while they exchanged in social fellowship the news of the church.
The two groups of women quickly hardened into partisan groups, one determined to have the new potato parer and the other equally determined that the church should not have this potato parer. The controversy became so heated that the women carried their quarrel home and lined up their husbands as participants in the quarrel. As a result, the entire church membership was divided into the pro-potato parer party and the anti-potato parer party.
One day the pastor of this church, greatly depressed, came to see another pastor, telling him he was resigning as pastor of the church. The second pastor was astonished and said to him, “How does this happen? You have a beautiful new building, free of debt, a most worshipful church, and a marvellous modern kitchen.”
“That kitchen is just the trouble,” he said; and he related the story of the quarrel over the potato parer.
“When I get up to preach on Sunday morning, there before me are the two parties bristling with belligerency—the pro-potato parer party and the anti-potato parer party. Utterly absurd as it seems, their minds are concentrated on this quarrel so that I cannot get through to them with any spiritual message. The potato parer is ‘all and in all’ to them. It has cut my church sharply in two, and I give up because I can no longer preach the gospel and be heard in such an atmosphere.” 1
As funny or absurd as we might think this story to be, it is, unfortunately, very sad and true. This is the reality in way too many churches. Conflicts and divisions wreak so much havoc with churches that they prevent the gospel from being preached, heard, and put into practice among God’s people. This failure to preach, hear and put into practice the gospel ultimately has the potential to threaten the very survival of a church. And no one is happier than the devil, the powers of evil when churches are fighting, divided and full of conflict. All too often, as was the case in this story, churches are divided over the dumbest of things for the strangest of reasons. Sadly, the causes of church divisions and conflicts are often not over life and death matters of our faith—but rather, over things of no real substance or consequence, like, in this story, whether or not to have an electric potato parer.
So many conflicts and divisions are often caused because the people involved in them so quickly harden their positions, trying to cast them in stone, and cut off their willingness to dialogue and reason things out together with others in a spirit of good will, patience, kindness, gentleness, and love. As members of the church, the Body of Christ, there is always room for an enormous amount of diversity and variety. Just as there needs to be a wide diversity and variety of physical body parts for us humans to be healthy and function properly—so too it is for us as members of the church. The church, from its beginnings has always had diversity and variety. This diversity and variety, rather than causing conflicts and divisions, is actually there to do the opposite of that—namely, to make us more one as Christ’s Body, to help us live together in unity.
In today’s psalm, King David, who was able to unite the two divided kingdoms of Israel in the North and Judah in the South; extols the virtues of people living together in unity. He says: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” I’m sure that King David was put to the test many a time by the tribes of Israel and Judah. There was, no doubt, a broad spectrum of diversity and variety among the different tribes, which threatened to cause squabbles, conflicts and divisions. However, David was able to help the tribes to live together in unity by acknowledging and accepting their diversity and variety.
The two analogies David uses in Psalm 133 to describe the unity of Judah and Israel are quite interesting. David says living together in unity “is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. Of course, Aaron and his offspring functioned as priests among God’s people. And as Christians, we describe ourselves as the priesthood of all believers. The word priest here refers to functioning as a go-between, as a bridge between differing parties. In other words, being people who seek out and strive to obtain reconciliation among one another.
The second analogy that David used to describe unity among God’s people was “like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.” I don’t know if you are familiar with the geography of the Holy Land, but Mount Hermon is located up in the North; whereas Mount Zion is a reference to Jerusalem in the South. Likely this dew of Hermon falling on Zion is a reference to the now united kingdom under King David. In unity, both kingdoms will thrive, grow stronger, flourish and benefit greatly from one another—just as dew serves to help vegetation grow, thrive and flourish.
The real reason (for church unity) is that our dividedness undermines the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He came to bring reconciliation; he broke down the middle wall of partition. How can we, the Church of God, say to a sadly divided world that we have the remedy for your animosities, your hatreds, your separateness, when we are ourselves so sinfully divided? Surely the world will retort, ‘Physician heal thyself’. How can the Church, say in Northern Ireland, really preach reconciliation between the warring factions in that land, when Protestants and Roman Catholics are unable to share the bread of life together in Church? 2
As members of Grace Lutheran Church, may we reap the benefits of living together in unity. May Christ’s love, kindness, gentleness and peace flourish among us. May the Gospel’s power and the sacrament of Holy Communion keep us in unity, so that we can reach out to the world around us; that observing our unity, others may be drawn closer to God and the church.