Everywhere I turned this week, I tripped across the idea of unity. Whether it was the constant murmuring of the people of Israel against Moses and God (and yes, I do know this is the SAME lesson Mike read and preached on last week); whether it was the NFL national anthem controversy; whether it was this week’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi; whether it was the idea of World Communion; whether it was the spectacle of the aftermath of natural disasters and the gathering of voices calling for help. On this World Communion Sunday, what exactly are we called to when we talk about unity?
I began by saying that the voice of the Israelites in the wilderness as they faced a hard life of no water, no food, no meat, no idea of where they were going, was a voice of unity. And that is how the story is told to us. But surely there were those who didn’t complain. Surely there were those who were just grateful to be alive, and away from the oppression of Egyptian masters. Surely there were dissonant voices in this “unified” people of Israel.
Seasons of the Spirit amplified this question for me of “was the voice of the people of Israel really unified”? by including a startling poem by Merle Feld giving voice to Miriam, the sister of Moses, and probably many others who journeyed in the wilderness. It is called “We All Stood Together.”
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
As time passes
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
Reprinted by permission from A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition, Revised Edition by Merle Feld, the State University of New York Press, copyright © 2007 State University of New York. All rights reserved.
Feld is reminding us that whenever we think of unity as sameness, we have lost out on the beauty of the diversity of creation—diversity of people, diversity of opinion, diversity of experience. The Miriam of her poem suggests that we are all diminished, we all miss out, if we do not include every single voice. I was haunted by her final line “If we remembered it together, we could recreate holy time, sparks flying.”
World Communion Day is a good day to remember that there is more than one point of view, even if the story seems to say otherwise.
I marveled last Sunday, as team after team after team, decided to stand or kneel or stay in the locker room. And we can argue about whether it is disrespecting the flag or those who have fought for our country, whether it is the best way to protest the inequality and brutality of how citizens and the police deal with one another, whether this was what our country should have been focused on when so many people in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin islands were reeling from Hurricane Maria, we can have all those discussions, and they are important ones to have. Regardless of how you feel, that image of players and owners being together, unified in their support of one another, that was what struck me. Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post put it this way,
“Unity defined [last] Sunday—not oversimplified tripe about unity, not an attempt to make everyone obey and seem unified—but true unity. The stadiums weren’t full of like-minded players or fans. Players didn’t stand for the same reasons; they didn’t kneel for the same reasons. Fans didn’t boo for the same reasons; they didn’t show support for the same reasons. But they came together, tens of thousands of people all over the place, and they made the points they needed to make. And hostility couldn’t measure up to how good it felt just to be heard” (Washington Post, 9/24/17).
Last Sunday might have been a glimpse of what working out our own salvation might look like. It requires thought and action. It requires the ability to listen to others (even though we may disagree with them). And it requires, amidst all of that, to still be willing to link arms and “stand” in solidarity. Listen again to Paul’s words:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
I think Paul was smart enough to know that “being of one mind” had nothing to do with being a cookie cutter version of one another. Working out our own salvation (through the grace of God) is done in fear and trembling. It is done with great humility. It is done together in love: that is what it means to be done in unity.
On this World Communion Sunday, we all could do with a reminder of this. On this World Communion Sunday, we can recommit ourselves to doing the hard work of living in this world as agents of our encompassing and loving God. As one small step, on this World Communion Sunday, we begin our collection campaign for Peacemaking and Global Witness. I have made copies of the “5 Affirmations to Guide the Peacemaking Witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA)” that came out of the General Assembly in 2016. In truncated form they are:
1. Peacemaking is essential to our faith [following Jesus] whose love and justice challenged evil and hatred
2. We confess we have sinned by participating in acts of violence or our failure to respond with ministries of justice, healing and reconciliation
3. We follow Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Reconciler, and reclaim the power of nonviolent love
4. We commit ourselves to studying and practicing nonviolence—
in mediating conflict, in addressing needed social change, and in opposition to war
5. We will practice boldly the things that make for peace
I think much of our world is right there with the Israelite people crying “Is the Lord among us or not?”
How will they know?
On this World Communion Sunday I can only think of Paul’s image of the body of Christ—all of us, right here and far away, of all hues, all languages, many diverse opinions, but gathered together in the love and ministry of Jesus.
How will the world know whether God is among us or not? I’m afraid that is our responsibility, our calling, our witness. We are the Moses’ who are talking to both God and the people. We are the elders who are willing to step outside of the norm if it might mean that there is a better life for all. We are the people who need to truly hear the cries of the distressed, the downhearted, and the oppressed, and realize they are talking to us.
That, I think, is what it means to be called to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure”(Phil. 2:13).
May it be so, Alleluia. Amen.