For several weeks, I’ve been preaching about the issues that we generally don’t like to talk about even though they impact many, many people.
I’ve looked to scripture to better understand mental illness, rape, sexual abuse, and more. Most recently I looked to Ephesians 4:1-16 for guidance regarding the divisions in our society. The fact that I was asked to pray about, study, and ponder “unity” this year had me especially interested in this passage.
Paul’s words from Ephesians call early Christians to “[make] every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” My study and sermon preparation was going well until I read one commentator who said that Paul was calling us to “tolerance.” I beg to differ! Unity and tolerance are vastly different! Common decency and polite society ask that I tolerate people with whom I disagree. Scripture calls me to something much more important: Unity. Tolerance is nice; but unity is faithful.
At the same time I finished reading Brené Brown’s newest book, “Braving the Wilderness,” in which she writes about divisions and connection from a sociological perspective, especially those divisions in our country today. It would be easy to blame politics and politicians for the anger and incivility that surround us, but it’s not accurate to place the blame on them.
Plenty of us outside of politics are angry, which sometimes causes us to be hateful and hurtful … because hatred is easier to express than the hurt and pain that we’re all carrying.
Brown points out that too often we use a shared hatred — or a shared dislike — as the basis of our connections. We set up us/them dichotomies. We dehumanize those with whom we disagree. And we have excellent justifications for doing all of these things! But rather than drawing us into meaningful relationships with likeminded people, what we’re actually doing, according to Brown’s extensive research, is building shallow relationships based on angry energy and hate.
While such relationships may be satisfying in the moment, they do not sustain us, and they certainly do not foster abundant life, “unity in the Spirit,” or “the bond of peace.”
Here’s a confession to illustrate my point and perhaps to help you relate: While preparing to preach about unity and division, I attended a meeting out of town with people who I knew of but did not know personally. As I scanned the room before the meeting started, I was categorizing people as I thought to myself, “He’s one of the good guys … oh, not him! I like her, and he’s on my side … and that small group over there is no good …” Sound familiar?
I’m grateful that I caught myself in those thoughts, and I’m ashamed I had them. What do we do about this tendency that we may have fallen into for valid reasons?
What we need, Brown explains, is meaningful connections that come from shared joy or shared pain. Funerals and music connect people quickly and reliably. Authentic worship forges those connections, too. What’s key in these experiences is a sense of community that comes from being together, from bodies gathered and hearts beating as one; it has nothing to do with political ideologies or socio-economic status. In fact, even agreement upon theological ideas is nearly irrelevant if worship allows people to be real and present in the moment.
Think about it. When there was a tragic school bus accident right here in Kuna, no one cared who went to which church or who had raised their voice at the school board meeting or who lost the city council race. In my church, when we passed the candlelight up and down the rows on Christmas Eve, it didn’t matter who believed in literal virgin birth or who hadn’t yet been baptized or who was only attending because their mother insisted; we praised God together and we were connected as one.
For disciples of Jesus, it goes far beyond holidays and tragedies. Us versus Them doesn’t work for people of faith because what matters most to the faithful is the love of God. And you’re either IN God’s love or … well … you’re just IN God’s love. There is no other option. We don’t get to choose whether God loves us or anyone else because God has already chosen to love all. What we do choose is how to respond to God’s love. Scripture offers instruction and shows us plenty of examples, all of which call us to love like God — generously, unconditionally, always.
That kind of love is simple, but it’s not easy. We do not live it alone; the Spirit of God is with us, urging us on, connecting us together not in spite of our different gifts but because of them. The Spirit swirls and dances among us, weaving our lives together, drawing people closer to one another, connecting us to one another with the bond of peace. I’m convinced that if we’ll allow the work of the Spirit within and among us, we’ll realize that it’s far more valuable than party affiliations, sports rivalries, the neighborhood we live in, the schools our children attend, or the status we earn with the car we drive.
May we welcome the Spirit who yearns to make us one. Amen.