Preached on May 28, 2017
In our Gospel reading, Jesus has been preaching a long time, from chapters 13 to 16, fully 15% of his life story from John’s perspective. Perhaps the disciples sighed with relief when he starts the pastoral prayer. Like many pastoral prayers, it is a summary of what went before; a hope that the sermon might actually be taken seriously. How do you know as a preacher? You hope and pray that your words are relevant and inspiring and something sticks. This is your cheat sheet to sermon listening, in case your mind wanders a bit. We pray about the one thing that really matters, so no one misses the point.
What is the point Jesus wants the disciples to get? God’s purpose is for all to be one. Jesus and God are one, Jesus abides with the disciples as one, he wants them to be united with God and with each other. In Jesus mind, one is not the loneliness number, rather oneness is reality. We are called to seek this greater unity that is at the heart of the God and all creation. William Sloan Coffin, the great Riverside Church preacher in the 1980s, said, “We are all one, all 5 billion (now 7 billion) of us, and Christ lived and died to keep us that way. That’s astonishing in its implications. All religions, all nations, all ethnicities, all gender identities, we are one. As Paul said in Galatians 3:28, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; but all are one.”
“That they may all be one,” from this scripture is familiar to the UCC, since it is our founding motto from 1957. On the UCC website, under the “What We Believe” tab, is says:
We believe the UCC is called to be a united and uniting church. “That they may all be one.” (John 17:21) “In essentials–unity, in nonessentials–diversity, in all things–charity,” These UCC mottos survive because they touch core values deep within us. The UCC has no rigid formulation of doctrine or attachment to creeds or structures. Its overarching creed is love.
“The overarching creed is love.” Love and oneness go together. If we love, we say “You are my kin, you are my neighbor, my tribe, my nation, my species, my world.” You cannot love if you say, you have no place at my table. It is hard to believe in humanity’s oneness when the world is so busy fracturing into ever shrinking groups in conflict with each other. A unity based on an “us vs. them” mindset is the opposite of love. This is not oneness Jesus defines in his Last Supper farewell address. Oddly, we have obeyed Jesus’s command to remember him as we celebrate communion together, but all Christians do not to take the call to be one and love one another as seriously as the ritual.
I was at a joint UCC/Episcopal meeting on Tuesday, Doug Fisher, the Episcopal Bishop of Western Massachusetts, said that the Protestant Reformation began with a necessary “no” to church authority, and we kept saying “no” for five centuries until we are compartmentalized into factions. We have to find more to say “yes” to each other.” He said this to church leaders from about 8 communities, including us (First Churches, Edwards and St. John’s) in Northampton, who are working together at the local level. In two communities, the UCC and Episcopal churches are going to share a building together. We spent time talking about what we like about each other, things for which we have “holy envy.” Episcopalians like our flexibility that comes with local church autonomy, and how quickly we can move on issues of justice and peace. We like the Episcopal sense of beauty, in their sanctuaries, prayers, and the great garb they get to wear. We compared theology. If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, you must experience the liturgy of baptism and communion. That is their core. If you want to know what the UCC believes, good luck. But essentially, it is at our congregational meetings, because our core belief is that we are together because of an agreed covenant to walk together with God.
This was all very inspiring and interesting, but one comment at the end stuck with me. A colleague said, “I’m aware that all of us here are white, and serve congregations with full-time pastors and fair amount of economic privilege.” While that doesn’t undermine the good work, it certainly broadens it. We can’t ignore national conflict as if the church is immune. A recent study showed that 14 percent of church goers in America have left or switched churches since the November election. That’s an astonishing, rapid shift. A great migration of Christians is happening, to quote Brian McLaren’s book we read during Lent. The national mood effects the church.
Here at First Churches, our attendance has increased since the election. I hope it is because we are practicing real hospitality and hope. We have been gathering our strength, and perhaps we are ready to be challenged and find a deeper call to the oneness of God. When we are not focusing on all things Trump, there are important things happening in local politics in America. A speech this week from New Orleans Mayor Landrieu supporting the removal of four Confederate monuments in the city, could be the speech of the year.
Landrieu said the “Cult of the Lost Cause” of the Confederacy is over, calling the Confederate statues monuments to slavery and white supremacy. These have no place in a diverse city with neighborhoods influenced by French, Spanish, Haitian, Vietnamese and African descendents of slaves. The Mayor said,
There is no other place quite like it in the world that so eloquently exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum — out of many we are one.
So, General Beauregard is gone, Jefferson Davis is gone, and only Robert E. Lee still stands, ironically over the old markets where slaves were sold, where is no monument to their history.
Another friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city.
Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?
We all know the answer to these very simple questions. When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do. We can’t walk away from this truth.
Here is the essential truth: we are better together than we are apart. Indivisibility is our essence.
NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman came to a similar conclusion after a driving tour starting in a small Indiana town that has a higher HIV infection rate than any African country due to the opioid crisis, all the way to Knoxville, TN, a thriving Southern city where Madeline Rogero is the first woman mayor and a former organizer for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers Union. Friedman says,
The big divide in America is not between the coasts and the interior. It’s between strong communities and weak communities. You can find weak ones along the coast and thriving ones in Appalachia, and vice versa.
He concludes, “The communities that are making it share a key attribute: They’ve created diverse, adaptive coalitions.” www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/opinion/rusting-and-rising-america.html This is important. We need to make the word “collaboration” stronger than the word “resist.” Resistance is a powerful word today, and since we call ourselves Protestants, protestors, we should have no problem with that. But saying “no” isn’t sufficient. What are we saying “yes” to for a hopeful future? The Tea Party started as a resistance movement, but doesn’t have a clue about how to govern, because you need to collaborate. The Indivisible Movement from the Left must not make the same mistake.
We hold the concept of being a Meeting House to be essential, so we understand collaboration. That is why I am dedicated to working with the Episcopal Churches in Western Mass, and all congregations here in Northampton. Its why creating a stronger community with Iglesias Batista Qechua is important, as we share more space and opportunities. Its why you will see restroom signs in English, Spanish and Qechua. We need strong community partners, so we collaborate with the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center and the Sanctuary movement, Interfaith Climate Justice and the arts with New Century Theatre.
Why do we do this? Because Jesus prayed that we may all be one, because our overarching creed is love, because we are better together than we are apart. On this Memorial Day, I do not give in to pessimism, but I say there is nothing wrong with America, that can’t be cured by what is right with America.