Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 13, 2018
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 robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained divine blessing,
life for evermore.
John 17:11, 13, 21-23
‘And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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 once read a blog written by a member of another denomination (which shall remain nameless) that referred to our denomination, the United Church of Christ, as a “refugee island” of misfit toys. This echoed a sentiment I frequently heard in seminary: “The UCC? You guys will take anybody!”
Observations like that make me chuckle, because from my point of view, the United Church of Christ is not some haphazard, bizarre collection but rather a purposeful, amazing collective where former Southern Baptists and lapsed Catholics and erstwhile Unitarians and “nones” come together as one body. Instead of seeing us a motley crew, I see us as a kind of miracle: people from diverse backgrounds, who often haven’t felt they belong elsewhere, finding a common home.
After all, those are our roots: the UCC formed from four different denominations that came together believing that what they held in common was more important than what divided them. The UCC’s original motto, drawn from this morning’s gospel reading, hits this vision right on the head: “That They May All Be One.”
Jesus prays this over his band of followers just before he departs from them, asking God “that they may be one” since he won’t be physically there to tie them together anymore.
But what exactly does it mean to be “one” in practice? Does it mean always agreeing on everything, never experiencing conflict?
With marriage, we often talk about “two people becoming one.” If that means always agreeing, never upending the apple cart, then I’d wager that every marriage in this sanctuary is doing it wrong. Healthy relationships of all kinds – romantic, platonic, familial, congregational – leave ample room for difference of opinion, even constructive conflict. (The disciples, as we’ll see in Acts, have LOTS of differences of opinion about how to do the work Jesus has given them.) That contrast of experience and perspective is part of what gives relationships oxygen instead of stifling them.
So if unity isn’t about being “yes-men” or avoiding rocking the boat, what IS it about?
Jesus prays “that they may be one, as I am in you, God, and as you are in me.” So oneness is, in part, about relating to each other like God and Jesus relate to each other – of being “in” one another while still being distinct from one another.
In my mind this looks like our hearts overlapping, commingling – not merging or blending so completely that there’s no longer a distinction, but sharing a common affection, a common love that reminds us that no matter our differences, we belong to one another. Later Jesus says it like this: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you…have loved them even as you have loved me.”
In other words, when we can be one with each other – part of a whole without being wholly identical – we manifest God’s magnificent love for us.
It’s like a family reunion – every family has its characters and conflicts, but gathered in one body, wearing those matching t-shirts, we’re reminded of what connects us rather than what divides us. I think of my gun-toting, Toby Keith-loving, self-described redneck cousin Matt from rural Iowa sitting with me, his suburbanite, progressive, formerly vegan and definitely still East-coast-educated little cousin – that we can share stories and laugh together about how Grandpa only cussed when he was sorting cattle or about the time Grandma found a garter snake in her closet. Many years ago Matt listed me as his favorite person in his senior high yearbook, and that love and belonging have carried over and trumped all else, even as we’ve grown in some very different directions.
That kind of unity – deciding that where our hearts overlap is more important than our divisions – is really powerful.
And it’s at work not just in families but in organizations. Many of you will be familiar with Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian group dedicated to championing a very narrow definition of family – married, Christian, straight. Focus on the Family’s rhetoric has eased up in the years since current president Jim Daly took over from founder James Dobson, but there’s still no love lost between Focus and those who believe in a more expansive definition of family.
One of the people subscribing to that broader definition is John Weiss, the former publisher of a staunchly progressive newspaper called the Colorado Springs Independent located in the same conservative town where Focus has its headquarters.
During his time as publisher, John made a point of inviting community leaders out for lunch so he could get to know them and their work; he believed it made him a better publisher and the Independent a better newspaper. One week he invited Jim Daly out for lunch; amidst their friendly but rigorous debate on reproductive rights, biblical literalism, and equal marriage rights, John learned that Jim had spent time in the foster system as a child and lived most of his growing up years without stable parental figures. John also learned that Jim had used his leadership at Focus on the Family to help steer local churches toward fostering the large number of Colorado kids without stable homes. And then something interesting happened. John wondered what it might look like to concentrate on where he and Jim overlapped, rather than where they diverged.
As the Independent wrote to its readers: “There’s something you need to know. The Independent is involved in a community-based partnership with Focus. No, hell has not frozen over. Here’s what happened: Our publisher, John Weiss, realized that there was at least one issue on which Focus and the Indy can agree: We want all kids to grow up in a loving home.”
So these two men and the organizations they led came together to host an event encouraging local Coloradans to foster children in need right in their own back yard. Despite initial misgivings on both sides, it was a success; and their work to highlight fostering, particularly for older children and those with mental or behavioral issues, continues.
“Of course, we’re going to have our differences philosophically,” clarified Daly, “we understand that. But we’re all big boys and girls, and so we can do… good…for the community without giving up our principles on either side of the aisle.”
Weiss and Daly’s story reminds us that unity is not about sacrificing your integrity for the greater whole – not about giving up our beliefs to go along – but rather about finding ways to be together that matter.
Especially in this politically divided climate, it’s easy to dismiss unity as a sort of kum-ba-yah pipe dream; to miss the depth, the power of this belonging, this I-in-you and you-in-me business or to brush it off as impractical, unrealistic. Likewise it’s easy to miss the depth, the power of Mother’s Day, or to dismiss as unrealistic the call of its original vision.
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, activist, abolitionist, and poet, became sick of the rash of wars in the 19th century – both at home and abroad – and the rancorous division underlying them. And so she founded Mother’s Day.
You see, far from envisioning a Hallmark holiday marked by breakfast in bed and flowers, Julia believed that the power of mothers was revolutionary – that it could stop war and tribalism. She created Mother’s Day as a clarion cry to women who could no longer stand to see the fruits of their mothering, whether biological or communal, mowed down in acts of violence. She believed that despite their range of experiences and beliefs, the women of the world belong to one another – and that their common love for their children and their communities was far stronger than the divisions of culture and class: “We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our [children] to be trained to injure theirs.” Talk about hearts overlapping.
In 2016 Julia Ward Howe’s call inspired activists and authors Rob Bell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Brene Brown, Glennon Doyle, and Cheryl Strayed, to found the Compassion Collective. Their motto? “There are no ‘other people’s’ children.” Syrian refugees? Our kids. Transgender youth in homeless shelters? Our kids. Detroit schoolchildren with no heat, desks, pencils or books in their classrooms? Our kids.
Over the last few years the Compassion Collective has raised over $2 million, mostly in small donations, to help care for Syrian refugee families and struggling American youth. (All you procrastinators out there, here’s your last minute present for the mothering types in your lives.)
Think of the POWER of that community – mostly, but not all, mothers, pulling together to stand against xenophobia and bigotry and the crushing steamrollers of poverty and war. Out of all the things they may individually disagree about, thousands of people have decided that keeping kids safe and fed and warm is paramount to ALL of them. Can you imagine if our government acted that way – or our church?
This Mother’s Day, more than I pray for breakfast in bed or a solid night’s sleep or an hour long massage – and I pray for that solid night’s sleep a lot – I pray that we, like Jim Daly and John Weiss, like the Compassion Collective, would take seriously Jesus’ call “That we may all be one,” Julia Ward Howe’s call for us to “take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace…each bearing after their own kind the sacred impress, not of Caesar [or Hallmark], but of God.”
I pray this for our country, our communities, and particularly for us as a church – that as we encounter differences of opinion, as we inevitably will, we will see them not as reasons for going our separate ways, but as a catalyst for claiming the places where our hearts overlap, where we might share a vision and a purpose so powerful it outshines our disagreements.
In other words, I pray that I may be in you and you in me, that we might belong to each other, that through our oneness we might manifest God’s soul-smiling, difference-bridging love so brightly that the world cannot help but bask in the warmth of its glow – that our hearts might overlap as we live out Jesus’ prayer “That they all may be one.” Amen.