Written by Pastor Ed
December 4, 2016 – Advent II
Isaiah 2: 1-5
Romans 15: 1-6
Harmony – that blending of sounds that makes for a richer, fuller voice; the combining of numerous sounds to the fullness of an orchestra or choir. We often think of harmony in terms of music, but it can be applied to other situations as well. When people get along with each other we say they are living in harmony. It can also be used particularly in speaking about texts, particularly Biblical texts, where we have different versions of the same thing, like the four Gospels. There have been numerous attempts to write a harmony of the Gospels, trying to make one story out of the four. But as you might imagine, it’s not an easy task.
Harmony – what does it mean to “live in harmony” as Paul prays that the Roman church could do? It seems to me we have gotten confused as to the meaning of that word, or perhaps we don’t think in terms of harmony any more, but of something different. Paul writes that prayer- “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”- after a long section in his letter to the Roman church in which he addresses the issue of conflict in the church between the Jews and the Gentiles.
As you may recall, the Roman church had been planted primarily among the Jews of the city. But then the Jews had been kicked out of Rome and the leadership of the church had been taken up by the Gentile believers who didn’t feel the need to follow all of the Old Testament dietary laws as well as some other practices that had been part of the Jewish Biblical tradition. But now the Jews had been allowed to return, and were reasserting themselves. That set up some conflict, as you might imagine.
And what is Paul’s primary message as he addresses this conflict? Don’t pass judgement on each other just because you disagree about some things. Rather, to quote another of Paul’s letters, have the mind of Christ who came as a servant of all. Or as he says in this passage, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (14:19) What he doesn’t say is that everyone has to agree on everything, or that they all must believe exactly the same way in order to be the church. He stresses that Christ died for both Jew and Gentile, and just because they disagree doesn’t mean they aren’t all Christians.
In fact, in some ways it seems like you need differences in order to make harmony. One voice can’t sing in harmony, you need at least two. It was interesting when an independent congregation in Iowa joined the Mennonite church, one of the first things they did was to buy Hymnal Worship Books, our hymnal and begin learning to sing in 4-part harmony. They explained that for them it was a symbol of the peace position of the Mennonite church, because when you sang in harmony you had to listen to the other voices and work to blend together to make good music. That’s also what it means to build peace.
Isaiah speaks of the peaceable kingdom, of beating swords into plowshares, and as we heard last Sunday, of the wolf and the lamb lying down together, the cow and the bear grazing side by side and the child playing over the adder’s den. You’ll notice that the vision isn’t that they all become one animal so that they can get along, but rather that they still are who they were, but there is no longer conflict between them.
It’s a lesson a friend of mine taught me many years ago. Herb was an African-American who lived down the road from my house and where I spent a lot of time during my high school and university days. As we were discussing race relations at one point, Herb said to me, “Don’t ever say to me, ‘I don’t think of you as black;’ because if you do that you take part of my identity away. Rather recognize that I am black and what that means, then we can talk.”
It’s a concept that Donna Entz talks about in her work with Muslims in Edmonton. To be clear about who you are and who they are allows for much more fruitful dialogue than to deny either one. I also talk about that often with couples who are getting married. Sometimes they want to light a unity candle, symbolizing their marriage, but I always insist that they still leave the two individual candles burning, because they don’t give up who they are as individuals when they get married, rather they form a harmony between the two of them. As I once remarked, joining in marriage a person who rides a motorcycle with a person who rides a bicycle doesn’t mean that they now both have to ride mopeds!
One of the misconceptions that I’ve heard that people have about the Being a Faithful Church process and the resolution that was passed this past summer at the Mennonite Church Canada assembly is that now the church has decided that everyone has to agree with same-sex marriage and all churches will be required to perform them. Nothing could be farther from the truth of what was decided.
The resolution didn’t change our confession of faith, nor did it mandate that everyone had to agree. In fact, the most important thing it did was to recognize that it is an issue on which we disagree across the church. Some congregations who have struggled with the issue, both on a Biblical basis as well as on a personal human basis have come out different points in their understanding. And what the resolution said was that at this point in time, we need to stay together and listen to each other, live in harmony, recognizing that we know only in part and with the confidence that the Spirit will continue to guide us.
For the church in Rome in the first century, the issue of what was clean and unclean, what could be eaten or not be eaten, was just as divisive and important to them as the LGBTQ issue is to us today. And I think Paul’s words are also just as important. I’m sure there are differences of opinion and belief even within this congregation, not only on that issue, but on many others. We could go off and form our own little groups where everyone believes and thinks alike, but that would hardly be the image of the kingdom of God that is portrayed in the Bible.
Isaiah’s vision is of people from every nation streaming to the mountain of God, a vision much like that of John in Revelation of people from every tribe and nation gathered around the throne of God. Do you think they will all look and think alike? Hardly, except for one thing; they will all have the mind of Christ and be ready to worship God together. That’s really the only thing we need to agree on to live together in harmony.
Jesus came to break down dividing walls. Now not all boundaries are bad. In fact we need some boundaries in our lives for our own safety and for the common good. Those lines down the middle of the street mean something and help to keep us safe. Crossing personal boundaries can lead to abuse and a great deal of harm.
But all too often we erect boundaries, walls that are not meant for protection or safety, but rather simply to divide us and keep some people out. But the vision of the new Jerusalem is of a city whose gates are always open ready to welcome all who come. And the music of that city will be all the richer because of the diversity of people that come together to worship. And the church is to be a foretaste of that city.
How much richer we will all be because each of us brings together who we are, with our own experiences, beliefs and ears attuned to the Spirit as well as to each other. I’ve said it before and will probably say it again, even the person that I disagree with the most has something I need to listen to and learn from. Hopefully they will feel the same way so that together we can come to a fuller, richer understanding than before. If we truly believe that the Spirit is at work in everyone, guiding us into truth, then we must also believe that we need to be together, living in harmony in order for that truth to emerge. Just as I can’t sing all the parts of the Hallelujah chorus, but can add my voice to one part, so I don’t have all the truth, but I may have a piece of it that I can add to the mix to make a fuller sound.
It is all of us, along with our brothers and sisters around the world, all singing together that will produce that one voice of praise and will invite others to join in the chorus as well. During this Advent season, let us seek to build each other up, adding our voices to the chorus, to create a harmony of many voices. God’s harmony is at hand, let us walk in the way of God’s heart.
Let us join in a prayer of confession.
L: God of harmony,
P: we yearn to walk in your way
but often choose our own path of turmoil and pain.
Save us, Lord,
from the pride and foolishness of choosing our own course,
that we may humbly and confidently
follow your lead,
through Jesus Christ, Amen.
Words of assurance
L: Throughout the tumult of life,
God holds you close in love.
because God’s wisdom is your guide,
God’s compassion is your strength.
God’s love is your redemption.
ALL: Come, let us walk in the way of God’s heart!