Clergy Bowling: A Lesson in Unity

“Clergy Bowling – a Lesson in Unity”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 29, 2022

Psalm 133
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred 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 priestly robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained a blessing:
life for evermore.

John 17:20-23, 26
‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’

– – –

I was going to start this sermon with a story about bowling – one of the “fun” activities scheduled while we were in Detroit for Next Generation Leadership Initiative.

I was going to talk about how you haven’t lived until you’ve seen 30-odd pastors bowling together – not only because we are an uproarious, ridiculous bunch, as evidenced by our silly bowling names and our epic, fall-on-the-ground-with-disappointment dramatics when we miss a pin, but because clergy bowling is one of the most supportive, joyous spectacles I’ve ever beheld, with cheering for the novice bowler who finally gets just one pin knocked over out of the ten, with commiseration for the wobbly bowler whose ball treacherously jumps into the gutter at the very last minute, and with raucous cheering for anyone who gets a strike or a spare, or even, if they’ve been struggling, simply knocks down half the pins.

It’s not that we are somehow above being competitive – you just have to watch us playing a cutthroat round of “A Game for Good Christians” which is sort of like Apples to Apples but about the Bible – to have that notion dispelled. (Am I making this leadership program sound entirely too fun?? I promise we work hard too!)

No, I think it’s that we have so much practice at cheering our congregations through the highs and supporting you through the lows that we have just gotten really good at celebrating where each person is on their own journey – we have gotten really good at making, as our prayers said this morning, common cause in this wild rollercoaster of life.

And not just pastors, but church people in general – we are good at throwing our lot in with those around us and pulling together to get through, whether it’s a strike kind of a season or a left-all-the-pins-on-the-lane kind of a season. It’s what we are doing now, as we walk together with so many of our beloved church people facing diagnoses and health challenges.

That was what I had planned to preach on.

Then I woke up Wednesday and couldn’t stop crying as I walked my second-grader to school and watched so many innocent kids and teachers stream into the building for a day of learning and fun, just like the shining, wondrous, precious children at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas did the day before only to have their lives brutally ended or their sense of innocence irreparably shattered by a gunman who was still a student himself.

And that, of course, made me think of Buffalo and the white gunman, also still young enough to be a student, who drove over 200 miles to find enough Black people – a father picking up a cake for his 3-year-old’s birthday, a beloved grandmother who had beaten breast cancer, a 72-year-old activist dedicated to making her city better, a husband grabbing snacks for a movie night, a faithful church deacon – to murder en masse in a horrifying act of white supremacist terrorism.

As Dave Morrissette asked at digital prayer on Wednesday, O God, when will your kindom come?

– – –
Jesus prays over his disciples that they would all be one, as Jesus and God are one. I’ve preached on this before, on how we can join hearts with one another in spite of our differences – and I still very much believe that to be true and perhaps to be even one of the church’s particular, and prophetic, gifts: to call people to an overlapping of hearts despite real differences, especially in the face of so much working to divide us.

But in the last few weeks, Jesus’ prayer for oneness and call to unity has begun to resonate for me in another way. It’s made me think of taking up a common cause that has broken each of our hearts, of joining together with people across our nation, of doing something to change the reality we have had to lament far, far too many times over the years and far, far too many times even just since I’ve become your pastor.

Collective outrage and heartbreak, organized into action and galvanizing our rage and pain, is one of the most effective ways that real change happens. From the right to vote for women and for people of color, to the 8 hour work day, to Gandhi’s non-violent revolution for Indian independence, to the end of the Vietnam war, to awareness and some sort of momentum around the climate crisis and about racialized violence, massive and sustained action has brought us a lot of advances in justice and rights that once seemed like a hopeless David-and-Goliath fight against the powers that be.

Yet we seem not to be able to get traction on gun violence – maybe because it feels so hopeless; and maybe, in part, because we are so distracted by the 24 hour news cycle and the doomscroll of social media, so diverted by the performative act of posting the right words and moving on, so divided by those in power who would far rather we not exercise our communal strength, that we have lost the will and the ability to sustain long-term focus and action on the issues that will kill us, literally, if we do not address them.

But coming together and saying “we refuse to value the right of the gun lobby to pour dollars into the coffers of our politicians over the right of our children to live, we refuse to accept that guns are now the number one cause of death in children and teens in America, we refuse to let a handful of elected officials who love power more than they love victims of gun violence hold us hostage, we refuse to make it laughably easy for someone radicalized by hate groups or bullied so incessantly they lash out at others to get military-grade weapons, we refuse to let white supremacy spread its tentacles further and deeper into our society, we refuse to think of the victims of this violence as anything less than our precious, beloved neighbors and fellow children of God who deserve justice and who deserve our presence and our power in both rejoicing and sorrow” – coming together and unceasingly broadcasting that message seems to be the only way our voices and our values will be heard and, God willing, acted on in this epidemic of gun violence, of white supremacy, of young people so alienated, wounded, and manipulated that they turn to massacring innocents rather than facing and healing their own pain.

I’m not an organizer; I don’t know what the strategy piece of this looks like, although I do know that whatever policies and laws we come up with are going to have to be grounded in a literal common cause – that if we don’t want to end up with laws that look good on paper but have no real effect against perpetrators, responsible gun owners are going to have sit down with people who would be happy if they never saw another gun in their lives and vice versa, and we are going to have to defy the “us and them” divide and find common ground, no matter how distasteful or how uncomfortable it might be. Because however you feel about them, guns aren’t going to magically disappear in this country. Yet we have to figure out a way forward anyway, to protect our elders and our kids and our siblings of color and our neighbors – and ourselves.

It’s a good thing, then, that we as Christians have been schooled in sitting down with our enemies and loving them instead of demonizing them – and in seeing everyone as our neighbors instead of ignoring their pain, and in acting on our love, not just saying empty words. Because even as I feel Jesus whispering comfort and strength into every heart that is breaking alongside his over all of this unnecessary, gratuitous, absolutely sinful trauma, I also feel him asking us when we will say “enough” and actually do something about the idolatry of violence and white supremacy that grips our country. When we will do more than just lament – though we certainly need to do that – when we will act, making common cause with each other and with those we disagree with and with the most targeted and vulnerable among us and helping to actually birth the kindom we so long to see made real.

Because one of the hard truths of our faith is that Jesus now has no hands or feet but ours. Jesus has no voice to call his legislators and no vote to cast but ours. Jesus has no body to show up at a protest or make art or create community or heal a sick and broken nation but ours.

Something must be done. And as followers of Jesus Christ, who died rather than to give in to violence or bow to bigotry – as church, a gathering of people whose very purpose is to make common cause out of others’ triumphs and tragedies, to claim their suffering and their succor as our own – we are the ones to do it. May it be so. Amen.