Shaping Community

I am thinking about unity a lot these days. Maybe you are, too.

Everything seems fractured. No one can agree on anything anymore. To wear masks or not to wear masks. To vaccinate or not. To vote this way or this other way. We can’t even agree on data sets. It seems that there are two parallel universes with their own news cycles with little to no overlap. The things we are facing that should bring us together, only seem to drive us further apart.

It reminds me of Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey. He jokes: “I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they’d never expect it.”[1]

There’s that Cain impulse that we have. Instead of talking things out, we get jealous and lash out just like Cain did to Abel. It’s an old legend, but legends are lessons that ring with truth.

We’re also divided in terms of time. For some of us, the pandemic was over in February. You were vaccinated around that time and felt the world should open up. For others, we were able to get our vaccines in the mid-spring, just around Eastertime. For others of us in our 20s down to age 12, the vaccine was done around June and we could enjoy food indoors once again. For those under 12 and those with medical exemptions, the pandemic is still ongoing. No word of a date when vaccines will be available for those under 12.

All of this is under my own roof. Our sense of time is way different from our neighbors. No wonder we’re feeling fractured. And when we’re feeling that way, we have a hard time taking in new information. Our anxiety is through the roof and we’re just surviving.

Leadership expert Sharon Daloz Parks states that “A hungry frog won’t eat the fly in front of its face if it thinks there’s a heron around.”[2] In other words, we won’t do what’s best for us if we’re under extreme stress.

It’s not that we don’t want unity, it’s that we want unity on our terms. God shows up and says, “Hey! I’m throwing a big party! I’m here to teach you my ways! I am the life of this party. Come to me, and you’ll never be bored or ever wonder what your purpose is.”

And our response is to grumble and say, “Who does this guy think he is?! Isn’t he that boy of Joseph and Mary? Well, Mary we know for sure… Wasn’t there some controversy around this kid? Anyway, we know where this guy’s from, and now he is saying he came down from heaven?!”

People divide over all sorts of things. Both religious and non-religious. It seems to be a human trait. Some folks want to think it as better back in the good ol’ days. It wasn’t. There was segregation. White folks made laws cause they wouldn’t drink from the same water fountain as black people. We have the Sharks and the Jets. We have the famous duel between Burr and Hamilton. We have the Hatfields and McCoys, and Montagues and the Capulets.

Yet here is Jesus talking about being the bread of life and of unity. The most scandalous part of the gospel is who Jesus included. He included those who were excluded. He said that’s who the party is for. They are the guests of honor. And we killed him for it. But before that we grumbled about it.

It is easier for us to divide. And we are divided. And we’ll go for unity as long as it suits our needs, and we don’t have to change or give up all that much.

Jesus goes right after his tradition. He attacks the sacred stories: “Our ancestors ate manna when they were in the wilderness of Exodus and they died. What I’m offering is eternal life. The bread is me and I give it for the life of the world.”

It’s an incredible statement. It demonstrates how those who think they are in charge of the narrative are often the ones who lose the narrative.  John 6 contains the heaviest concentration of language about Jesus’ heavenly descent anywhere in the Gospels according to scholar Gail O’Day.[3] Yet the Jewish audience listening to Jesus grumble and get hung up because the emphasis is on the wrong thing. Jesus’ emphasis isn’t on the fact that manna came down in Exodus 16, but that God came down with the new law, with new liberation, with a new promised land. Instead, the religious focused on manna, but that wasn’t the life-giving gift to the world. It was God’s covenant promise. Just as Jesus is the true bread. He alludes to it. Did you hear it?

I am the bread that came down from heaven. Did you hear it? God’s name is the first two words of the sentence. I AM. It’s the Hebrew characters YHWH, the name of God. Ancient Hebrew texts didn’t have vowels, so depending on what vowels you put where this name could mean, I AM. I AM WHO I WILL BE. I AM WHAT I AM. I AM THE GROUND OF ALL THERE IS. I AM THE BRINGER OF ALL THERE IS.

Instead of asking questions, the religious of that day grumble and complain. I mean. Just imagine for a moment that people who are tasked with loving their neighbors would grumble and complain when they have to care for their neighbors. Could you imagine?  Imagine a culture that understood germ theory and how viruses work and how to get a vaccine out in a few months, yet people had fist fights over toilet paper and hand sanitizer.  Just imagine. Too farfetched?

Maybe you need another story. I put this one in a Pastor’s Q&A in the bulletin a few weeks back. I’m still thinking about it. “A man went to church. He forgot to switch off his phone and it rang during prayer. The pastor scolded him. The church admonished him. His wife lectured him on his way home. One could see the shame, embarrassment, and humiliation on his face. He never set foot in the church again.

“That evening he went to a bar. He was still nervous and trembling. He spilled his drink. The waiter apologized and cleaned it up. The manager gave him a complimentary drink and a hug saying, ‘Don’t worry man. Who doesn’t make mistakes?’ Lesson: sometimes our attitude as believers drives souls away from God. You can make a difference by how you treat people especially when they make mistakes.”

Sometimes we misplace our certainty. Sometimes we emphasize the wrong parts of the story. Sometimes we miss the narrative. Sometimes we find more grace in a bar than we do at church.

Take heart, church! We’ve been here before! There was a division in the church in Ephesus in the first hundred years of Christianity. A growing number of Gentiles in the church had begun to denigrate the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith. The author of the letter lays out an argument for how the church should speak. Our speech should be truthful, helpful, positive, it builds up and is kind. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, I love that line. It’s a good one to follow if you like to keep your relationships going.

Be cognizant and intentional about your speech and action, especially at church. You train for it here so you can be kind at the bar, at the movies, at work, and in your neighborhood.

I once was driving Eve somewhere. She was just a few years old, her car seat was still facing backwards, that’s how little she was. While I was driving, words of road-rage and anger came out of my mouth. And a few moments later, little Eve repeated my words. I was reminded of my higher standard of my use of words.

Never use words in church that you would not want to hear echoed from that car seat. That’s where unity starts. Unity does not always look like some huge reconciliation between nations, it starts with us. How we are in this space. Our culture. Our vibe. Our welcome. People can feel it. And you know what, church? You got it. You’ve done enough.

When babies cry during worship, you don’t give them a hateful side-eye. You know that a noisy church is a growing church. You know that I print out my sermons and we record them, so you can revisit any part you miss on our archived streamed service on the website. No need for anxiety or division. We know that the next generations of church are right here.

You don’t complain about all the young kids or young families about. You know that they’re here for a reason, and they are our present and future. No need to focus on the generational differences. We can find areas of unity and agreement. We can share stories.

You also don’t complain about our more seasoned folk. How they might move a little slower to their seats or we might have to repeat our words. No complaints.

We have a respect across generations. We are an intergenerational place. And to be that, it means we have to give up some of our comfort so that others can hear the good news. So they can see themselves in the good news. It’s why we  use intentionally inclusive language. Because we know that while Jesus says, “Our Father” he also says, “God is like a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks to her.”[4]

We want everyone to see themselves in the good news! We hope that you’ll see yourself in the story of this church as, just by being here, you already have added to the story of this church! For the church is the people, never the building or the budget. The building and budget are meant to serve the people and never the other way around.

You’ve done enough. You’re doing great! You already seem to know these words from Parker Palmer. When I read them, I thought of your witness, church. “The human soul doesn’t’ want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed – to be seen, heard, and companioned exactly as is.”[5]

That’s what God is asking us. Can you see me as I see you? Can you hear my still speaking voice, just as I hear your inner most thoughts? Can you companion me as I have companioned you? For therein lies our salvation. Therein lies the whole of our sacred stories and traditions.

Jesus is the bread of life. And those who get that shall have eternal life. That means in every aspect of their lives there is joy, truth, and reconciliation. Every aspect is helpful, positive, it builds up and is kind. Even in death and after death into true eternal life… But eternal life has already begun on the day you were baptized or said yes to following Jesus. It would be a shame for you to wait until after you’re dead to truly live. I mean, isn’t that the point of our whole tradition? To be fully alive! So repeat the sounding joy, church! Go tell it on the mountain! Isn’t that something we want echoed from the car seat?

Works Cited

[1][1] Deep Thoughts: Inspiration for the Uninspired (1992), Berkley Books

[2][2] Common Fire: Leading lives of commitment in a complex world. Is a great book. She said this metaphor in my second NGLI session in January 2012 and I have never forgotten it.

[3][3] New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, page 603.

[4][4] Jesus says this in Mathew 23:37 and Luke 13:34 but is quoting a slew of Psalms… 36:7, 57:1, 63:7, 91:4 for the wings. And Deuteronomy 32:11-12 describes God as a mother eagle. Jesus knew his scriptures!

[5][5] Tweet from Diana Butter Bass @dianabutlerbass on 8/1/2021

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