May 15, 2011, Exodus 12:37-39, Ephesians 3:7-13
The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
Just after graduating from seminary I served a church as an intern on the northwest side of Chicago. Ravenswood Presbyterian Church had an unusual history. In the late ‘60s two congregations approached Ravenswood seeking to merge. One was composed primarily of Appalachian whites, or Hillbillies, who had moved to Chicago after the Second World War, attracted by manufacturing jobs, the other was a Spanish-speaking fellowship composed primarily of people from Cuba, who had fled the island following Castro's revolution.
The church weighed their options and chose to merge with the Spanish-speaking church. It was a marriage made on earth.
When I started working there in 1990, more than 20 years after the merger, I noticed a stack of hymnals on a table outside the sanctuary. They were all in Spanish. See, the English hymnals stayed in the racks, and the Spanish-speaking people had to carry their hymnals in and out of every worship service. There was not room for both hymnals in the racks...the English hymnals were there first...it wasn't worth having a cow over...that's just the way it was.
After I had been at Ravenswood for about a month, I found out why they had chosen me as their intern. I don't speak Spanish. For years they had been hiring bright, young, idealistic, bilingual seminarians and recent grads...and time after time the intern had gotten pulled into the life of the Spanish-speaking part of the congregation. By the time I got to Ravenswood, the congregation was about 1/3 English-speaking and 2/3 Spanish-speaking. The English speakers were feeling neglected; they were getting older; there hadn't been a new English-speaking member in years, while the Spanish-speaking part of the congregation was thriving.
At the church I did a little of everything. I preached about once a month, visited people in the hospital and shut-ins, I led Bible studies. One thing really got to me about this church though. Every time I entered the pulpit to preach a guy named Bud got up from his pew and walked into the chapel. The first time this happened I figured Bud just had to go to the bathroom. But he did it every time. Next I thought he just found sermons boring. I found out later that Bud's job was to walk into the chapel and start the cassette recorder. He recorded the sermon each week and personally took the tapes to church members who could not attend worship. He sat in the chapel listening, and listening with great attention I soon realized. When the sermon was recorded, Bud would write the date on the label-and he'd give the sermon a title. He'd give the sermon a title. I loved that.
I have always found it difficult to give a sermon a title. And I find it very difficult to give a sermon a title by the time our office staff needs information for the bulletin. Most Sundays there is no title in the bulletin. Once in a while there is, but it's only when I have written the sermon prior to Thursday morning. I don't want to sound like a temperamental artist here, but when I pick a title too soon in the creative process, I write to the title and do not follow where the Spirit may lead me. Sometimes I come up with a sermon title and put it in the bulletin and forget about it entirely. It works much better for to have a Bud who will listen attentively to the sermon, and then in three or four words tell me what he thinks it should be called. At Ravenswood Presbyterian Church, Bud was the most reliable source of feedback to me as a preacher.
My time at Ravenswood was eye-opening. I had lived in Chicago seven years by then and Chicago has a large Spanish-speaking population, mostly Chicago's Spanish-speakers are from Mexico and Puerto Rico. The Spanish-speakers at Ravenswood came from all parts of Latin America. The Christian Educator was born in Cuba, her husband was born in Ecuador. The secretary was from Peru, after she left, her replacement was from Guatemala. The pastor had served as a missionary in Central America so he was completely bilingual. The family that lived in the manse and cared for the building had come from Colombia. To the English-speaking 26 year old intern from Peoria this was quite a revelation.
I tasted the rich variety of this diversity at the church's annual International Night. You've been to potlucks. You know what to expect. Green bean casserole with Durkee fried onions on top in a sea of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup; Jell-o with little marshmallows in it; baked beans...Ravenswood's International Night Potlucks were different. Imagine every family in the church making its specialty and competing with the other families to make the best food-and add to that that they were representing their national identity. As the self-conscious English speaker, I politely took food from every family and asked, "What do you call this?" Usually a child or grandchild would translate my question to the matriarch who would answer, "arroz y pollo," "rice and chicken." About 75% of the families brought arroz y pollo, but it didn't matter because every national group made it a different way. I asked one lady for her recipe. Her daughter laughed and said, "This is just the way she's always made chicken." She wrote down the ingredients on the back of placemat and handed it to me. I named the dish "Pollo a la Magdalena," after the daughter. The other 25% brought desserts. My favorite discovery in the dessert department was guava shells and cream cheese. Guava shells are the only canned fruit I've ever seen that is packed in "extra heavy syrup." Guava shells are dense, sugar-laden and sticky. Many people find them too sweet, which is why they are served on a foundation of cream cheese.
The funniest moment I remember at Ravenswood was meeting Augusto Torres. Augusto is Magdalena's husband. I shook his hand and asked him what he does for a living. Everyone who heard this burst into laughter. "Tom doesn't know who Augusto is!" I was baffled. Then Augusto informed me that he's the anchor man for the Spanish language news in Chicago. It was as though I'd asked Dan Rather what he does for a living!
I stayed in touch with Augusto and Magdalena. They gave one of the charges at my ordination. Augusto pointed out that I had already been toiling in the Lord's vineyard for some time. Augusto speaks English with a thick accent. His ‘vineyard" came out "bean yard." I love the image of toiling in a bean yard. Those two words feel much more comfortable to me than "vineyard."
I look back with great fondness on the nine months I spent at Ravenswood. I could have lived in Chicago for a long time and never crossed paths with anyone I met there. I'm tempted to say that the only thing I had in common with the people who became my friends at Ravenswood was the Presbyterian church, but that's simply not true. We had a lot of things in common, and it was the Presbyterian church that brought us together, gave us a place where we could recognize the things we shared.
Unity is a funny thing. Sometimes people ask me why there are so many different Christian churches in Oshkosh-if you're all Christian, can't there just be one? I could talk a lot about how different denominations have different understandings of God and also different understandings about how churches should be organized. I could explain that in addition to theological differences, there are cultural differences among Christians. Usually when someone asks me how Presbyterians are different from other Christians, I smugly reply: "We're better... And if you've got a couple hours I can flesh that out for you."
But I also believe that we, common followers of Jesus Christ, need lots of different approaches to following the One we call Lord and Savior. And I saw this very clearly last summer. You remember, I'm sure, the controversy around the plan to build an Islamic cultural center in lower Manhattan. I remember one voice among the public opposition to the proposal saying that there are 173 other mosques in New York City, certainly there is no need for another! And I got to thinking about the other Christian churches here in Oshkosh. I do not often worship in other churches, but when I have I have found myself completely unable to worship in them. The style, the theology, the music...it simply does not work for me. Yet I look around and see I am surrounded by people who are worshipping. Perhaps there is a similar level of variety among Muslims.
Three summers ago I went to a week-long preaching workshop with other pastors from Oshkosh churches. I made good friends. We watched each other's video-taped sermons. I realized I could not preach in their churches and they could not preach here. We're just too different-yet we're all Christian and we're all in the same city!
I'm not sure there has ever been unity among followers of the Living God. Way back in our history, when the Hebrews burst out of slavery, when they began the long process from slavery, to wandering, to being a people with a land of their own...way back then at the dawn of our history..."a mixed crowd" joined the Israelites and their livestock in fleeing the Egyptians. "A mixed crowd" no one knows exactly who they were. And they're never mentioned again. Presumably the mixed crowd blended in with the Israelites. The whole crowd formed into a community through shared struggle and hardship. Nothing builds unity like a steady diet of manna and quail. Or walking through the desert for 40 years! What the people all had in common was a desire to be free from slavery-and that common identity and desire made them into a nation.
Whoever it was who wrote Ephesians had a plan to share the Good News of the grace of Christ to all people, but look at what he wrote, "and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God...so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known." I'm pretty sure everyone has an image of "the wisdom of God," what does it say about that wisdom if God expresses God's own wisdom in "rich variety?" Maybe the fact that there are about 60 Christian churches listed in the phonebook, and many others that find they can gather for worship and exalt Christ without a land line-is exactly what God wants. Maybe it's even exactly the best expression, best embodiment of God's rich variety. Maybe it even brings joy to God to see how different this wonderful creation can be.
I'm done, but now comes the experiment. The ushers are going to come around with slips of blank paper. Please take a minute to think about a title for this sermon. Imagine you're Bud. What would you put on the label of the tape you just made? You can use a pencil from the pew rack in front of you. Put your suggested title in the offering plate when it comes around.