Healing a Broken Church

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached at a special service called Order of Corporate Reconciliation. We offered this worship experience at my congregation as one of several opportunities for healing following a very contentious and conflicted congregational vote a few months ago. The most powerful moment in the service for me was during Holy Communion. Because there was a small group there, I encouraged them to come forward and make a semi-circle in the chancel to share communion. After we all shared the bread and wine, I went behind the altar to clean up the elements. I looked up, and saw they were all holding hands. So it seems to me that this worship was a good thing.

I found this order of worship in the United Church of Christ Book of Worship, and I highly recommend it for any congregations who are trying to heal following a major conflict.

 

Since the vote in June, a few of us have been working hard to provide opportunities for healing and reconciliation among members of this congregation.

Many people have shared their hurt. Some have shared that they were hurt by the results of the vote itself, that the vote felt like a betrayal, a knife in their back. They felt unwelcome and attacked.

Some have shared that they were hurt by accusations that they were bigots. They felt they were being told that if you voted a certain way, you were hateful and cruel. This too felt like a knife in the back. They felt misunderstood and attacked.

Some have shared a fear that the congregation would be shattered by this, that we would never heal. Thankfully, that seems not to have happened.

And even these attempts at healing have been controversial to some.

Some have said we need to just move on. And I agree – we do. But those of us who have gathered here tonight know that moving on doesn’t mean pretending something isn’t there. We know that moving on doesn’t mean acting as though everything is okay, saying ,”Peace, peace,” where there is no peace, to quote Jeremiah. Really moving on is harder than that. It means dealing with it. Dealing with our emotions. Dealing with our disagreements. Dealing with the conflict. And that’s hard. Moving on is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Unity is hard.

We know that. We know that very well right now. You are very strong, very courageous for attending tonight. Peace and forgiveness are scary.

But our faith also tells us that there is hope. And the source of this hope is Christ. We have gathered here tonight looking for that hope, praying for that hope, trusting in that hope. Tonight’s liturgy is overflowing with this hope. And so I want to spend the remainder of this sermon interpreting this service with you, looking at what we’ve done so far this evening, and what we will be doing shortly.

We began by singing “Come Now, O Prince of Peace.” Simple words calling God to come here and reconcile us. It’s an Advent hymn, a hymn befitting a time when we’re waiting for something to arrive, in this case, unity and reconciliation.

We then invoked the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we implored our souls to bless God for all his benefits. We remembered the words of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ teaching about who is blessed in the world, and we prayed that these words might live in us, that we might know that we are blessed when we strive for peacemaking, when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, when our spirits are poor, and even when we are persecuted.

Then we heard words of scripture:

Ezekiel proclaimed that God will one day give us one heart, and put a new spirit within us. The Psalmist called our souls to wait for the Lord, more than those who keep watch for the morning, more than those who keep watch for the morning. Paul urged us to live as children of the light, living in the light and exposing the unfruitful works of darkness. And Jesus reminded us that the law and the prophets all come down to two things: love of God and love of neighbor.

I think we want to believe all these things. And so from this point forward tonight, we are going to speak and sing and act with confidence that these things are true. We will shortly sing a hymn called “God, When Human Bonds are Broken.” It may be unfamiliar, but I believe it describes exactly where we are right now, calling for God to come and heal the bonds among us. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the hymn is unfamiliar, as we are on unfamiliar ground here, trying to find hope and unity amid conflict and hurt.

We will then return to something more familiar: the faith we share in the words of the Apostles Creed. Whatever we disagree on, we can agree on the truth of God, the Father Almighty; Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; and the Holy Spirit.

We will then have an extended rite of confession and forgiveness. Together we will confess the sins we have committed that have contributed to the conflict, for none of us are completely innocent. And I will invite you to commit to forgiving those who have sinned against you. As I said yesterday, forgiveness is not just for their sake but for our own. We cannot move on, we cannot really feel God’s forgiveness without striving to forgive one another.

I will then invite you forward to receive anointing with oil. Typically, when I anoint you, it’s on your forehead. Tonight, it will be on your hands, because the focus tonight is not individual healing, but on communal healing ,being reconciled to one another. I will make the sign of the cross on your hands with the words, “Christ has forgiven you. Go, forgive others as he has forgiven you.” And with our hands still moist, we will share the peace.

And then we will do what we do so frequently. We will receive again grace and forgiveness through Christ’s body and blood, and we will receive again the calling to out to share that grace with one another.

Finally, we will leave singing the hymn “In Christ Called to Baptize.” We will leave here filled with grace, inspired by words like these:

Unite us, anoint us, O Spirit of love,
for you are within us, around us, above.
Equip us for service with gifts you bestow.
In Christ is our calling, in Christ may we grow.

And we will leave tonight not fixed. Not perfect. Not sinless. But strengthened. Nourished. Hopeful. Patient. Ready.

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