A message given December 10, 2006
Rev. Scott Summerville
Asbury UMC

Isaiah 40:1-5
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

These words of the prophet Isaiah expressed the deepest longing of the people Israel.

In ancient times people of Israel rarely experienced peace. We know from the words of the prophets that the people of Israel experienced constantly the threat of war, and that even within the nation there were deep divisions: rich and poor, servant and master, male and female, alien and native born.

The prophets of Israel spoke a double message: they spoke a word of fierce judgment upon a society that tolerated great quality and great injustice. At the same time they spoke a word of ultimate hope.

The prophets were people of their day, confronting the injustices of their day, and they were people of vision who held before Israel a cosmic vision: the vision of all of humanity reconciled and at peace before God.

The words of the prophets come to us again today. They come again as a judgment on us in our time, in our society where still deep divisions of opportunity divide rich and poor, those who have access to good schools, good housing, good health care, and those who do not, those who live is safety and comfort and those who do not.

The words of the prophets come to us in a time of war and division. This week’s report of the Presidential study commission on the war in Iraq has made plain the deep divisions among our people and even among the politicians, generals, and experts.

In such a time as this, a time of war and division, the church needs to have the dual vision of the prophets of ancient history. We must face and struggle with the realities of today and with God‘s call today and every day for justice and Shalom. At the same time the church needs to hold before the world the prophet’s vision of unity and reconciliation, the cosmic hope the prophets proclaimed.

The work of peace and reconciliation means more than using fine words on Sunday mornings. To be people of prophetic vision is to seek to live daily in a spirit of reconciliation and hope. How can people work together across the deep divisions in our world? How can we find alternatives to violence — violent actions and violent words?

Two years ago the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church established something called the Unity Task Force. A friend of mine, Rev. Doug Cunningham, is the chairperson of that group. This group was commissioned to find ways to bring the people of our Annual Conference together to discuss issues that deeply divide us. The first issue on the agenda has been our division around issues of sexual orientation. This group is bringing together people who have vastly different opinions and outlooks.

They have brought together people who regard any sexual practice other than heterosexual as sinful and non-Biblical with people who are passionately convinced that the rights of gay people and the humanity of gay people have been abused by society and by the church and are determined to change that.

The Unity Task Force is just beginning the full implementation of its work, but already, to the surprise of many people, they are reporting that the conversations they are holding have been rich and positive, intense and respectful.

The process they are using, “Circle Process,’ which I’ve talked about before, involves bringing people to higher ground in order that they can seek common ground. As Christians, our higher ground is our communion in Christ Jesus, the love of God that binds us, our friendship in Christ, and when we can be clear about the higher ground on which we meet, then we can encounter one another in love and truth, even where in matters of opinion we are deeply divided.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.

Cosmology is a branch of science and philosophy that deals with the origins and the nature of the universe. There is a big problem in cosmology.

The scientists are puzzled with why the universe came to be the way it is. If the universe began in a singularity, a single point of infinite density, and expanded outward, why isn’t everything the same? If you begin with a single perfect point and expand that point to make the universe, why isn’t everything uniformly the same?

Scientists speculate that something had to disturb the uniformity of the original stuff of the universe. The glory of creation cannot be expressed unless something breaks the sameness.

There had to be some little blip of energy pushing a little harder this way or that way. There had to be some subatomic particle wobbling just a little bit. There had to be some radiation radiating slightly more to the left or to the right.

Something has to disturb the sameness or the universe would forever remain a blank screen, a uniform field of energy expanding forever, but with no glory, no stars, no moons, no planets , no hard and soft, no wet and dry, no mountain and valley, no night and day, no you and me, no high note and low note, just a single vibration radiating out forever.

There had to be variation for our universe to exist. A universe where everything is the same would be a dead universe. The principal of difference – variety — is what brings the glory of God to expression.

United Methodist Church now has a motto: Open-Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. This is an advertising slogan, and like any advertising slogan, these phrases can be simply words cooked up to create an effect. Of course an advertising slogan can be more than an advertising slogan. A church could truly be a place of open hearts, open minds, and open doors. It’s how we exhibit the meaning of those words that can make them more than a slogan.

These words are an embrace of variety, of differences. If a group of people is all the same, why would anyone need an open mind? If dealing with differences was simple, we would not need open hearts.

So the Methodist Church has declared to the world that it offers a wide gracious space for people to enter and to encounter the love of Christ.

But if this is going to be more than an advertising slogan, we need to acknowledge that when you open your heart and your mind and your door, and people accept the invitation, then we will find that people are not the same. Their life experience is not the same; their problems are not the same; their opinions are not the same.

When you invite real people together with all their differences, you better have more than a good advertising slogan up your sleeve.
A church that stresses openness had better be prepared to cope with all the difference that people bring and not be afraid of those differences.

My father was all his adult life a liberal Methodist New Deal Democrat and ardent admirer of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His next door neighbor for the last twenty or more years has been a conservative Catholic Rush Limbaugh Republican. He and my dad had a close relationship, unusually close as neighbors.
While my father was alive they conversed daily. They helped each other with every sort of project. And this neighbor and his wife, who are a good deal younger than my parents, watched out for my dad and mom like family as my parents aged — and they still look out for my mother.

He cried at my father’s dying. He calls me whenever he has a concern about my mother. Knowing he is there is enormously comforting to me.

This friendship of neighbors over several decades is a little slice of America, where people can be neighbor and friend despite vast differences in outlook, religion, and politics. It is possible that their friendship was richer and more meaningful because it encompassed significant differences. Perhaps they were closer because they were different.

This is the seventh Christmas season I have been in this community, serving this congregation. That is long enough that I have begun to gather in my soul another congregation, the congregation of all those that I have known and loved here who are no longer here, those who have moved to other places, but especially those who have died in the time I have been here. At risk of sentimentality I would say that I think of them often with love and longing, and they make a wonderful congregation. And they don’t give me nearly as much trouble as the living people do!

I often think of the words of Margaret Kowarick shortly before her death, a time when she became more and more conscious of life, more and more focused on the essence of life, more and more clear about what matters and what does not matter. She made at a sort of declaration just before her death. She said “Whether you are the parent or the child, it does not matter. Whether you are young or old, we make a such a distinction between people based on how old they are – it does not matter. Male and female – we make so much out of male and female – male body, female body – what does it matter if you are female or male? My son, my child, a man, bathes me, takes care of me, dresses me – it doesn’t matter. People say, ‘I could never do that.’ Why? What matters? All these thing – we think they matter; they do not matter.”

At the end of her life she was seeing with intense inner vision, seeing to the core of life, and there she found the unity of humanity and she saw through the many things that divide people. The barriers came down and she could see things so clearly.

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

This is our Advent vision, a cosmic vision. We are called and reminded to take up the challenge of embodying that vision, here and now.