Wendell Berry writes about loss. Berry – one of my absolute favorites – has written a series of novels around the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. Set in the times between the turn of the last century and the 1950s, each novel, from a different character’s perspective, tells the story of life and loss, family and faith, amidst the changing relationship between the people and the land – small farmers who see the world so quickly changing. They are novels full of beauty and of grief.
My favorite is Hannah Coulter. Hannah is born on a small, family farm outside of town. Her first husband dies in World War I, leaving her alone with a new daughter. His family takes them in, so young. She eventually remarries, and after years of struggle she and Nathan move into a home together. The part of the community they move into is special, though, and Berry gives us a glimpse of a world that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Hannah and Nathan, a couple of cousins, and then, on the adjacent land, her former in-laws, four other couples lived within a short walk, a few with older children. They all worked their own land. But there were times, Hannah says, "mainly during the tobacco harvest, when we would all be together. The men would go early to have the benefit of the cool of the morning. The women would finish their housework then gather, sometimes bringing dishes already cooked, to lay on a big feed at dinnertime; and then, after the dishes were done, they would go out to help in the field or the barn for the rest of the day. Uncle Jack Beechum would often be on hand to do the little he could, to praise the work of the younger men, and of course to eat with us and pass his compliments over the food."1
It is a majestic vision of community. Hannah says, "This was our membership. Burley called it that." I am confident Berry’s use of the word isn’t a coincidence. "This membership," she says, "had an economic purpose and it had an economic result, but the purpose and the result were a lot more than economic." Some of the boys worked for pay, she writes, but many didn’t. "The work was freely given in exchange for work freely given. There was no bookkeeping, no accounting, no settling up. What you owed was considered paid when you had done what needed doing. Every account was paid in full by the understanding that when we were needed we would go, and when we had need the others, or enough of them, would come. In the long, anxious work of the tobacco harvest none of us considered that we were finished until everybody was finished."2
Membership. Family. Community. That’s what this phrase of the Apostle’s Creed calls us to. It is important to start off by making the distinction between Catholic, BIG ‘C’, as in Roman Catholic, headquartered in Rome, and catholic, little ‘c’, which means universal. We aren’t pledging loyalty to the pope, as interesting as new Pope Francis seems to be. The word catholic comes from the Greek word katholikos which means "universal" or "general."3 This phrase is an affirmation that we are all in it together, our Book of Confessions reminds us. It was meant as a word of hope, especially to small, isolated communities in the first couple of centuries. Even though they might have felt like it, they were not alone, and that they were united in ministry with others, all around the world, who felt kinship to faith in the triune God.4
But, if we are to understand ourselves as part of a team that is much bigger than us, that we are, to use Paul’s language from Romans, all parts of one body, the body of Christ, the church, why is it so hard for us to act like it? The 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, edited by Eileen Lindner, our Spiritual Enrichment Speaker a few years ago, tracks at least 198 separate larger church bodies, in 338,713 different congregations – from the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Assemblies of God, from the Brethrens to the Christian Methodist Episcopal, the Mormons and the church of the Nazarene, the Lutherans to the conservative Lutherans to the Missouri Synod Lutherans.5 Us Presbyterians aren’t any better, from the PC (USA), us, to the Evangelical Presbyterians to the Orthodox Presbyterians to the Presbyterian Church of America to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to the Evangelical Covenant Order, the newest offshoot in the works as we speak. We are most clearly NOT one body.
And in one sense this is, I truly believe, a sign of our brokenness. Not that formal church bodies, denominational offices, should always be directly equated with the church of Jesus Christ, but still, if we cannot resist splitting off, what might that tell us about who we are and who we can, and can’t live with? This is not a new development, to be sure. The Reformation accelerated a trend that had existed – sometimes underground and sometimes out in the open – from the first moments of the church. We have a hard time getting along. We are both faithful and snide, thoughtful and petty, clear and hopeful and hopelessly confused. All of us. Every single one of us.
And sometimes this is not the worst thing in the world. You will find sociologists who will tell you that some kind of separating is essential for people to feel comfortable in community. While I really wish our church were more diverse than it is, I also can’t blame historically minority communities for not feeling welcome here or anywhere else. It’s not necessarily even about us, but about what we symbolize, the way the church has historically oppressed others, particularly African-Americans, held up the status quo, held onto power. There are also seasons, as Jesus instructs the disciples in Luke, that disciples need to shake the dust off their feet and leave where they are not welcome. There are times when people feel called to take stands, to leave because of inappropriate behavior or misconduct, to leave because of patterns within a congregation that are unhealthy, that marginalize others, that put power over discipleship. I bet some of you have stories like these and, in my experience, church fights are about as painful as they get, because they are fights over deeply held beliefs, of things that people care about so much.
But, Jesus’ words in John MUST remain before us. Gathered in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, at the end of a 4-chapter sermon, Jesus shifts towards the future. And, in the last thing he says to his disciples before he is arrested, he prays for them. He prays to God that they might be one, that they might be in it together, that they might understand that the things that may divide them pale in comparison with the love of the Triune God, who wraps God’s own arms around us and calls us to listen – democrats and republicans and independents and people who wish all politicians would go jump in the ocean, gay and straight, black and white and every color in between, young and old, faithful church-goer, beloved slacker, folks who are quite skeptical of the church. People who believe deeply that these moral Mondays are an important voice in these critical days in our state, and people who think they are an egotistical publicity stunt and everything in between. In today’s hyperpartisan world we listen to our own news and talk to our own friends and form our own opinions, often before we know all the details. When we say, I believe in the holy catholic church, we need to know that we are called to do the hard work of living together, of being a part of the membership, because God places us in communities because we NEED each other. None of us, no matter how smart of faithful, has a corner on truth. We must have each other. God uses each of us, together, so that we might learn to be faithful in these complex, complex days.
Because we – and many more quite different from us – are all called to the table. Not because we avoid talking about the hard things, but that through those hard conversations we might be drawn, from the waters of baptism to this table each month, to pitch in and work together on committees and at the shelter and in prayer as we do our darndest to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. That we might take a little bit of bread and dip it in this juice, and for an instant, have space to listen to Christ’s prayer, that we may all be one. That, in our unity, we may glorify our God, by our love for each other, for all of God’s beloved and battered creation, in these difficult, difficult days.
May it be so. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, (Washington: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004), 93.
2. Berry, 93-94.
3. "Why do we say we believe in the ‘holy catholic church’ in the Apostles’ Creed?" The United Methodist Church
4. PC(USA) Book of Confession, Study Edition, (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1996), 19.
5. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, 2010, Eileen Lindner, ed., (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), pages 355-371.