223rd Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren
San Diego, California — June 30, 2009
Scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 12:4-14, 27-31; 13:1-2
“Las cosas viejas pasaron; he aqui todas son hechas nuevas. Y todo esto proviene de Dios.”
No, I am not going to deliver this sermon in Spanish, although I should. Why not? Why do I have to go through all the trouble speaking to you in English when it is not my native tongue. I should let you struggle a little in trying to understand me in Spanish.
But that indeed would be a very selfish behavior on my part. Let’s do it my way because my way is the right way. I’m not sure what we mean when we say: “We need to get out of our comfort zone.” I don’t know if when we say “we”, we are including ourselves, or are we actually saying: ‘everyone else, except me, should get out of their comfort zone.”
So, today, I will get out of my comfort zone, since all of my sermons back in Puerto Rico are done in Spanish.
Too many times we want others to do things our way. To speak the way we speak. To think the way we think. To walk the way we walk. To worship the way we worship, because our way is the right way!
Walking the streets of my hometown, I saw this young man wearing a t-shirt that said: “ I don’t care what your opinion is, I am always right.” And this sounded very familiar. I knew I had heard it before. I heard it from my wife the day of our wedding. I thought she was kidding…soon enough I learned she wasn’t.
During the first week of just being married, one night, as we went to bed, I could not go to sleep. Mrs. Diaz would not stop swinging her legs back and forth. I told her, honey, you are not letting me sleep! To what she answered: “Well, this is the way I have always fallen asleep, rocking my legs” I respectfully begged her to stop. And once she said: “no!”
“But sweetheart, I can’t sleep!
“Too bad!” Was her last response.
“Oh my God” I said to myself. Lord, I thought you said when you created man that it is not good that the man should be alone. But I think I was better off single. So, I got up and told her: “All right, so that’s the way it’s going to be?” Well, I’m sleeping in the couch! But as I laid down, it was almost as if I could hear the voice of the Spirit saying:”What are you doing?” You know, like he asked Adam when he sinned taking from the forbidden fruit, “Where are you?”
I guess like Adam ,I was afraid… and I hid. Yes, it’s all about fear. It’s easier to just run away than to have to face a difficult situation, in my case, to deal with differences that I wasn’t used to. However, I thought to myself, this is foolish! My behavior is not acceptable in God’s eyes. So I went back to bed with my wife. She was no longer swinging her legs. She was already asleep.
The following day, we had an interesting conversation. We decided to work things out. We agreed That I would go to sleep first. Being a heavy sleeper, she could rock all night; it wouldn’t bother me!
Recently, we celebrated our 18th anniversary. It has been wonderful! We are still different. I mean I love coffee, she hates it. I enjoy the cold weather, she prefers hot weather. And the list goes on and on and on. Yet we have lived a happy and successful life together because we have learned one thing: We have learned to engage our differences, and this has made our relationship stronger, and together, we have accomplished many things. We figured that love conquers all and brings unity in every circle no matter who you are and where you are coming from.
And it is the unity with which we live that draws people to Jesus. In John 17:20-21, Jesus is praying to the Father and saying: “Father I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” From this prayer, we understand that as a result of our living in unity, people will come to Christ. This is Jesus praying, and I know his prayers are always answered.
We have so many good reasons to celebrate 300 years. We Brethren have come a long way since Schwarzenau. Yet, we are faced with a reality. There is a growing concern that our membership has not increased as you would expect, we may have decreased instead. So we try to understand what it means to do evangelism and we explore and examine those places that are experiencing growth and not only in numbers.
As a Brethren, I would feel uncomfortable saying that I am proud to be a Brethren. But I am very happy about it. I discovered I was Brethren even before joining the denomination. But I will confess, I still don’t understand why after 300 years, we are still trying to figure out what it means to be Brethren. And although it is extremely important to have and understand our own identity, we should be careful not to preach the Church of the Brethren, but, instead, preach the kingdom of God., and let our neighbors know the good news, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that everyone who believes may not perish, but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
However, preaching his kingdom is not enough, if we don’t live according to His kingdom. “May they be one as you and I are one so that the world may believe.” You see! Unity is part of the equation. So how are unity and mission tied together? How can we coexist when we are so diverse? Are we going to let our government show us how to do it? Or is the church called to model to the world how to live in unity because Christ is in our midst?
Those who know us, know we are a church of peace. A church that opposes all war and violence. But we should ask …are we in peace with ourselves? Are we in peace with those among us that look different or think differently? Are we comfortable joining in worship with someone with a different worship style? Or holding hands with someone with a different skin color, or working with someone from a different ethnic background? Because if this is not the case, then all we are doing is creating division and encouraging a non-inclusive environment which to my understanding, can only be found in the old way of thinking. And as we have heard thoughout this week, the OLD IS GONE! THE NEW HAS COME! Paul writes in Colossians 3:9-11 “ We have put off …the old man with his practices…and have put on the new man…where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised….” So if the old is gone and the new has come, why is it so difficult to work together in such diversity?
A few weeks ago, I heard a story of a man who spent 23 years in prison although he was innocent. DNA tests proved he was not the man who committed the crime. So he was set free. He will be compensated with $80,000 for every year he was in jail. During an interview, he was asked: “What will you do now that you are free? He hesitated, and simply said: “I don’t know.” He would have to learn how to live in a free world again.
When we come to Christ, we become a new creation, and we have to learn how to live as men and women who were once in the prisons of sin but have been set free. Paul in his letter to the Galatians says: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Division, hatred, prejudice, racism cannot reign in the freedom for which Christ has set us free. Yes, we have to be intentional in learning to live in that freedom and enjoy the blessing of being God’s people, one body, living in one Spirit.
In Psalm 133 we read: “ How very good and pleasant it is when brethren live together in unity! It 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. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained blessing, life forevermore.”
But does living in unity mean that I have to stop being myself in order to please others? Not at all! Better yet, the more we understand ourselves and accept ourselves just as we are, the better we can understand and accept others who are different. Being uniquely diverse doesn’t make us less of who we are… it enriches us. We are not to let differences divide us, we are to enhance our abilities to engage our differences. We are not to give up the things that make us unique, we are to learn to adapt to the differences of others. As Paul said to the Corinthians in the 1st letter (9:20-23), “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law ( though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law… to the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessing” (1 Cor. 9:20-23).
So, shouldn’t we, for the sake of the gospel, work to build unity as we do to seek peace? After all, it was Jesus’ intention for the believers to be one, as He and his Father are one.
After the resurrection, just before Jesus ascended to heaven, he gave his disciples some last instructions. He told them in Acts 1:8, “ But ye will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the world.”
Okay!!! It’s fine to go to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was home. It was a place they knew very well, as well as Judea, but… SAMARIA?
You might recall that when the Jews traveled from Judea down to Galilee, they didn’t want to go through Samaria, they would rather go around it (even if this meant that the trip would be longer). The Jews and Samaritans did not get along! However, in John we read that Jesus (a Jew) “had to go through Samaria.” And he did. And when he got to Jacob’s well, he sat down, tired and thirsty. Then came a Samaritan woman to draw water and Jesus said to her: “Give me a drink.” To what the Samaritan woman said: “ ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ ( Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”
Don’t we find ourselves sometimes saying the same thing? “We don’t share things in common.”
But isn’t it interesting that Jesus said to his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and the ends of the world”? He said: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, then you will be my witnesses.” But, before the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them in the upper room, something very important was with the disciples. There was a sense of UNITY.
The book of Acts 2:1-2 says: “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” The King James version says, “They were all in one accord in one place.” And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. How much we need that rush of a violent wind filling our house today. Oh, Spirit of the living God, come with POWER!
So it was the Holy Spirit that led the disciples through places and to peoples with whom they might not have had so many things in common. It was the Holy Spirit that moved the church across the Mediterranean, across Europe. It was the Holy Spirit that led eight people to be baptized in the Eder River in Schwarzenau. It was the Holy Spirit moving Brethren from Germany to a place that later would become a country richly diverse…AMERICA.
My dear Brethren, let us seek common ground. Let us try to find things in which we can agree. Let us not put aside our differences though, let us engage them. We are not to let fear stand in our way in becoming a more powerful and living church enriched with great treasures of diversity where we share our different gifts.
FEAR interferes with FAITH. Repeatedly, we find in the Old and New Testaments the phrase, “Do not be afraid.” I understand this phrase occurs in the Bible 365 times. That’s one “do not be afraid” for every day of the year. And you know what? John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear….” When you come to think about it…LOVE is the answer!
Brethren, go out and LOVE somebody. Go and love somebody who’s different. Go and love somebody with whom you might feel uncomfortable. Before you leave this convention center, greet somebody different.
Of course, it would be just a beginning. But continue on back home and in your neighborhoods. Let’s be intentional about it! I challenge each and everyone of you delegates, youth, young adults, and those of you in leadership that by next year when we meet again in Pittsburgh, we can share powerful testimonies of how God is working with us, and how we are working with each other, “Together in Unity, Though Uniquely Diverse.”
–Jaime Diaz is pastor of Iglesia de los Hermanos (Church of the Brethren) in Castañer, P.R.
The News Team for the 2009 Annual Conference includes photographers Glenn Riegel, Ken Wenger, Kay Guyer, Justin Hollenberg, Keith Hollenberg; writers Karen Garrett, Frank Ramirez, Frances Townsend, Melissa Troyer, Rich Troyer; staff Becky Ullom and Amy Heckert. Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, editor. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.