Yesterday was another one of those interesting days for one new to the pastoral guild. In the morning I was down in Victoria preaching and leading a discipleship class at a church in Victoria. It is a very interesting church comprised, I was told, mainly of well educated white-collar types. The worship service was formal and highly-structured; there was a strong sense of reverence and propriety. There was beautiful artwork throughout the sanctuary and a high degree of musical skill evident in the singing time.
The theme of the service was “called to community” and the passage I chose was Galatians 3:26-29. The basic idea of the sermon was that the kind of community we are called to as Christians is one where all are welcome, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, age, etc. The message seemed to be very well-received and I had several stimulating, enjoyable conversations after the service. Usually when I finish a speaking engagement I leave with an overwhelming sense of relief that I have simply survived and not made a fool of myself, but yesterday I was actually able enjoy the experience with a minimal amount of anxiety. It was a good morning.
Later in the day it was off to the Nanaimo Correctional Centre for a couple of worship services with the inmates there. You could hardly imagine, obviously, a more different “worship experience” than the one I had been a part of earlier in the day. The inmates trickled in wearing their red suits—an obvious and omnipresent reminder of their “separateness” from the rest of us—and took their seats in the sparsely decorated chapel. A few songs were sung, mostly off key and with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Two of the prisoners stumbled through the Scripture readings, an informal homily was delivered by the chaplain, there was a prayer time, followed by a few more songs and a benediction. At the end, there was a bit of time for cookies and coffee to be hurriedly stuffed back over conversation before the guard arrived to lead the inmates back to their cells.
In Galatians 3:28 Paul writes: “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
These words rang a bit hollow as my head hit the pillow last night. On one level, we most definitely are not one. It’s hard for me to imagine a world where the prisoners I worshiped with last night would feel comfortable with the highly-educated professionals I worshiped with in the morning. Paul speaks of how the lines we use to divide ourselves have been abolished in Christ but they still felt pretty real yesterday. We still have very clear categories, even (especially?) in the church. Educated/uneducated, white-collar/blue-collar, formal/informal, volunteer/convict, inside/outside. Whatever unity Christ has made possible among human beings seemed more of a future hope than a present reality to me yesterday.
But there are always moments where we get a glimpse of this future hope breaking into the present. As a part of his homily, the chaplain had read the inmates a story from CNN about a little girl in Afghanistan who spent six hours a day begging for bread because her dad was strung out on drugs and couldn’t/wouldn’t provide for his wife and daughters. It was a heartbreaking story, but made little perceptible impact at the time of its reading.
Or so I thought. During the prayer time of the second service last night (two services are necessary to keep those in “protective custody” away from the general population—one more division…) one large, red-faced young man boomed out the following prayer:
Hi God. It’s Tyler again. I’m getting out on Tuesday and I need you to help me make it this time. I need you to fill me up and show me the way that I need to go, to protect me and those I love. Please watch over me God.
And God, please give this girl in Afghanistan some bread. I work in the kitchen, and I know that we throw a lot of bread in the garbage every day. It’s terrible and we shouldn’t do it. The amount of bread we throw out each day could probably feed a whole village. I don’t know God, she needs some of our bread. Just please, give this little girl some bread.
It was one of those precious holy moments where the truth and the power of the kingdom came shining through, where our common humanity seemed much stronger and more enduring than the walls and divisions we put in place to keep us apart. I preached about oneness in Christ in the morning but the real sermon came later in the day when I witnessed one simple, practical expression of how the love of Christ can break down the walls between human beings.
You are all one in Christ Jesus. Really?
Really. You are all one.
Those jetting off to accept post-doctoral fellowships and those behind bars for the fifth time in the last ten years. Those whose prayers are eloquent and rich in theological truth and those just desperately seeking help in making it on the outside this time. Those who sing majestic hymns in beautiful four-part harmony and those who can’t hold a tune and lurch half-heartedly through a simple chorus. Those who worship in clean, comfortable, and aesthetically-pleasing sanctuaries and those who sit on plastic chairs in a concrete room with little more than an old piano and a simple wooden cross on the wall. Those with bread to spare and those who need them to spare it.
You are all one.