This week I got to stay in Flagstaff again, and preach at Epiphany, the local Episcopal church. Hooray! While I enjoy driving all over Arizona, it is also nice to stay home every so often.
Especially when I-40 is closed because of fire again. (Ah, summer in the high desert!)
Here is what I said. And the following things should be noted:
1. I got my brother’s permission for citing our email discussion.
2. The Hafiz poem is from a book called “The Gift”, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Highly recommended.
Easter 7, Year A
John 17:1-11, Acts 1:6-14
My brother, Aaron, is a comedy writer in Los Angeles. We are very different people– we don’t even really look alike. To meet us, most people wouldn’t guess we were related at all. When I went out to visit him and our two cousins in March, our cousin Elliot asked me if I played basketball in school. Aaron and I looked at each other and laughed for several minutes.
In school, Aaron played three varsity sports, including basketball. Meanwhile, I wrote a scathing op-Ed piece in the school newspaper, partially aimed at the misdoings of the basketball team. Aaron helpfully disavowed being related to me.
This week, I sent Aaron a link to a newly-founded ‘women’s entertainment and humor destination!’ website. What did he think? Because I didn’t think it was funny, and I wanted to know if I was missing something, and he’s usually good at this sort of thing.
Aaron responded the way I expected him to: with a long commentary about women in comedy, and a comprehensive review of the website in question. What I did not expect was the final note at the end: ” you’re a girl. I’m not. Respond to this with thoughts!”.
Aside from his sudden failure at writing like someone with a bachelors in communications, I was impressed with my brother.
Generally, his approach to the world is pretty know-it-all. But here he was, admitting that there was going to be a difference between how he perceived something, and how I did, and that difference was important. That difference could even be creative.
The readings for today center around an idea of wished for unity. At the end of his prayer, Jesus prays for the disciples to be one. As he is about to ascend to God, the disciples anxiously inquire of Jesus if this will finally be the time when Jesus will restore the one true united kingdom to Israel under the one true unified God. Unity all over the place.
It’s such an attractive idea, unity in God, unity with each other. No strife or conflict to worry about, everyone agreeing all the time. There’s even a psalm about it. Oh how pleasant it is, exults the psalm, when the people dwell together in unity! It is like oil upon the head, running down upon the beard! Which, I’m assuming, is actually, a more pleasant a thing than it immediately sounds.
How often do we come home at the end of a long day, or better yet, at the end of a church meeting, and dream of a day when everyone will be brought by the power of the Spirit to perfect agreement with everyone else? When we won’t actually have to have meetings anymore, because the perfect solution to each problem will just present itself magically in our minds?
When denominations will disappear, because, as an old professor of mine used to say, everyone will eventually give up, and become Episcopalian as God intended? Oh happy day!
Unity! Is this what we picture when we say unity? But, notice!
When Jesus asks for his disciples to all be one, he conditions it. He says, as the Father and I are one.
And now that’s a tricky image, isn’t it? What is the relationship like between Jesus and God?
Jesus and God, the Father and the Son, are close, but they were by no means the EXACT same entity. They didn’t subsume each other.
They were different. They are different.
While both of them are God, they are still different, unique. So much so that Christianity doesn’t work if they suddenly start to merge into each other.
Now, At a certain point, we need them to be the same. We need Jesus to be the Christ, to be God made flesh, to be God’s way to experience our human life. We need them to be the same.
But at another point, we need Jesus to be Jesus, and God to be God. We need God to create the heavens and the earth, and we need Jesus to wander around down here explaining it to us, and telling stories, making God reachable.
Without the difference, it doesn’t work. Without the sameness, it doesn’t work either.
But Oftentimes, we get fixated on similarity. We become convinced that unity is the only way to go, and that if we don’t achieve perfect similarity, we have failed. If everyone doesn’t think like us, we are failing, if there is conflict, we have screwed up, if there is disagreement, or strife, or whatever, we have done something wrong. We confuse unity with conformity, and the two are not the same. As Christians, if our model for human relationships is the Trinity, then we need to remember that the Trinity is not conformed to one another, and it would not work if it was. We don’t worship a weird version of the Borg. Praise God.
We worship a triune God. We worship unity in diversity. We worship a God who is complicated and multi-voiced through the centuries. And this God teaches us that each individual voice needs to be more than tolerated: they need to be celebrated.
Our different perspectives are valuable, not just a fact. They are gifts of God, given by the Spirit for our enrichment, for the benefit of the whole. Those aspects of ourselves that make us different also lead us to see aspects of the world that others cannot, movements of the Spirit that others miss. That’s important. That is necessary. That is necessary if the Body of Christ is to function as a full Body, and not just a disembodied head, or a dismembered arm.
And though the fact that our differences lead us to see the world distinctly, often leads to clashes and conflicts, that’s ok. If the spirit can speak through our differing voices, our distinct perspectives, then the spirit is going to speak through our conflicts too.
Sometimes the people of God disagree. Sometimes they do this loudly and vigorously. And sometimes, unfortunately, they do this in not so kind ways. Conflict isn’t antithetical to being a good Christian– you can have conflict and still have unity.
Because, in the end: What gives unity isn’t similarity, and it isn’t perfect agreement, and it isn’t, most certainly, forced acquiescence. What gives unity is simple: Unity is found in love.
Jesus and God and the Spirit are bound in love. The perfect sort of love that recognizes the unshakable, unbreakable image of God in the other. That honors the other, and promises that despite disagreement, the relationship will not end. Love: patient, kind, unselfish and unfaltering. The sort of love that we find in God is the sort of love we are called to cultivate for all people on earth. That sort of unbounded, unbroken love flowing out from God and uniting us with every living thing.
That is the love in which we find ourselves, and all of creation already enclosed, so long as we open our hands to embrace it. As the poet Hafiz said: out of a great need, we are all holding hands and climbing, not loving is a letting go. Listen! The terrain around here is far too dangerous for that.