Adapted from a sermon
Delivered October 14, 2007
Immanuel Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7
II Timothy 2:8-15
Avoid Wrangling Over Words
Good morning. We bring you greetings from the hinterlands, sometimes known as the semi-annual meeting of the Presbytery of Yukon. Joanne Potts was our official delegate for the two day meeting in Wasilla all day Friday and Saturday, but Mary Jane Landstrom, Rozann Kimpton, Dan Ketchum and I were also there. Dan was accepted into membership after delivering what everyone agreed was an eloquent Statement of Faith. Joanne gave the Elders’ Report and told the group about our Self-Study efforts and that John Carey would be our interim minister for another year.
The churches paired off with their partner congregations and spent an hour braining-storming possible shared ministries. Immanuel’s partner is the Utqiagvik Presbyterian Church at Barrow. Some exciting possibilities emerged for working together during the next couple of years. I think we are extremely fortunate to be paired with the Utqiagvik church. This church, the oldest in the Presbytery, has so much to teach us. And perhaps, we will have something to offer them, as well.
The most serious issue facing the Presbytery was and is financial. After a decade of spending down the reserves, the last of the surplus will be needed to balance the 2008 budget. Some difficult decisions will have to be made concerning how we will do ministry in the state beginning in 2009. We may explore opening a thrift shop as a fund-raising effort, similar to the Catholic Bishop’s Attic and the Salvation Army. We will probably hear more about that in the coming months.
But Presbytery being what it is – the most heated debate arose over whether or not the church at Nuiqsit would be designated a “mission priority” for 2007-2008 or whether it should rather be designated a “mission focus.” The debate lasted close to 45 minutes, and I believe, the issue was tabled for further study.
I could not help but to reach over for the pew Bible and look up the Scripture lesson from II Timothy that Dan read for us a few minutes ago:
“Remind them of this,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.”
These were all good people – but they seemed steadfast determined not to hear one another and to wrangle over meanings and possible misinterpretations of the words “priority” and “focus.” I cannot help but believe that they really knew what was trying to be conveyed, but they just felt like wrangling.
There is no question about it; finances are dire enough at the Presbytery level that there is little leeway for recreational wrangling. Differences in theological perspectives, priorities or focuses aside, we are going to have to work together if we are to continue our presence outside the major urban areas. Christ commanded us not just to take care of ourselves in our own home towns, but to leave the comfort of our surroundings and to bring the Good News of God’s love to the four corners of the earth.
Some times we sort of feel like foreigners at Presbytery, not sure if they really like us, a little uncertain as to whether or not we share very much common theological ground. I’m not sure that any of that really matters. God has called us to be a part of this particular Presbytery – and it really is a fascinating, diverse and exciting sort of body of Christians to which to belong. It’s not just the four cultures and languages represented; it’s not just the geographic diversity; and it’s not even the broad spectrum of theological perspectives. It’s the individual people and the fact that they and their families are struggling with the same issues and disasters that face our families and that they each bring gifts and talents to the table that are absolutely amazing.
I sat with Ida Olemaun from Barrow at dinner Friday evening. Tears came to her eyes as she described the suffering of the walruses on the beaches at Barrow. The ice is 300 miles away from shore. The animals cannot get there to haul out.
“Just like Jesus,” Ida said, “there is no place for them to lay their heads. No place to rest.”
We wondered out loud if the oil companies could build floating platforms for the walruses at appropriate intervals between the shore and the ice.
Then the conversation turned to translating the Bible and I realized I was sitting with women much smarter than I. Ida and Molly Pederson, also from Barrow, are going Outside next month for a Bible translator’s workshop. Ida has almost finished translating the Book of Esther, which she really wants to get finished so she can start on Job. Molly has finished Micah and is anxious to get going on Genesis. I stared in disbelief, but these two women and two others have determined to translate the entire Old Testament into the Inupiaq language.
This kind of “wrangling over words” is a whole other matter, I’m thinking. And I feel certain that God mightily approves. Many members of the Barrow congregation are probably more theologically conservative than we are here at Immanuel – but they have the words of the Lord down in two languages. I’m impressed.
What are we supposed to do when we find ourselves among people with whom we think we probably disagree or who we think are so foreign to us that we could not possibly share common concerns or common ground? Listen. That’s the first rule. Listen. We aren’t supposed to give up who we are or what we believe. The Hebrew people were always commanded to retain their belief in the one God and to keep their religious traditions and pass them on to their children. I believe the same goes for us. But when the Hebrews went into Babylonian exile, the prophet Jeremiah counseled them to do something else: he told them to settle in, relax, and become part of the community. Marry, have children, build houses and plant gardens. And, in addition,
“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
Jeremiah didn’t say become Babylonians, but he did say to live peacefully among them, and seek the general welfare of the entire community. Both cultures learned from one another and the community prospered. Immanuel and the Utqiagvik Presbyterian churches as well as the variety of other Presbyterian expressions in the Yukon Presbytery can do the same thing.
Initially, this sermon was going to be about the ten lepers in the Gospel of Luke. I even had a hymn in the bulletin about “outcasts among outcasts” which I deleted last night. I was going to have a short introduction about Presbytery and then go on about welcoming outcasts and foreigners and the like. After working with the message for a while, it became more of a message about feeling different and un-accepted ourselves. We may not be just like everyone else in the Yukon Presbytery, for instance – but there really is no Standard Brand Yukon Presbyterian. We are all a bit different, yet we are striving to become one family, one community. I can feel pretty alienated sometimes, but I think that is often my fault. I need to want to be part of the group, yet retain those personal idiosyncrasies that are important to whom I believe I am. Even if I sometimes feel like I’m living in exile, it is still my responsibility to do my part for the community in which I find myself. And I’m pretty grateful for this realization.
So to get back to Scripture, there were ten alienated people in need of healing. Jesus sent them to the priests; they rushed off; and apparently were made whole. Nine just went on with their lives. The tenth stopped, took a moment and decided not to do what everyone else did. She didn’t even do what Jesus asked her to do, which was to go, be healed, and be gone.
No, this alienated individual wanted more. She felt gratitude for a new sense of wholeness and wellness. But she wanted to do more than just be healed; she wanted to tell others. She praised God with a loud voice, we’re told. She went back to Jesus, and thanked him with an overflowing heart.
Jesus responded with, “Your faith has made you whole.” He didn’t say, “I, Jesus, have made you whole; or God made you whole.” Jesus acknowledged that the healing of this formerly alienated soul had come from within herself – “your faith has made you whole.”
And our collective faith can heal our divisions and bring us together as one family, under God, each member with a gift of truth to share with one another. We will and can be healed.
“Remind them of this,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed (of who he or she really is), but a worker who (does his or her best) to rightly explaining the word of truth.”