"My prayer for them is not for them alone, but for ALL who hear my message...that ALL of them may be one.” John 17:21When Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia died, we heard a lot about his robust conservatism. I was most touched to hear the stories of his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justices, who were often polar opposites on the bench, managed to form an unlikely friendship. At his funeral, Justice Ginsberg referred to Justice Scalia as her “best buddy.” When talking about their lifetime appointments, Scalia once said, “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.” And Justice Ginsberg once said about Their friendship, “As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’ ”
How hopeful to remember that people can disagree and still be friends. Hey, maybe they learned this in church! Because, at our best, that’s what we do here every week. We don’t always agree. We don’t always like what others say or do. But we can be friends. This idea is actually a core belief in our church’s identity. The UCC understands itself as a “united and uniting church.” Why, do you suppose we would use both these words – united and uniting?
One of the key features of our churches is a belief in the self-government of local churches. Since there is no hierarchy in the UCC, a local congregation is the basic unit of church life. But even at the local level, we don’t always feel like a united church. We struggle and differ with each another over all sorts of issues, many of which have come up over the past few weeks: The priority of mission, the appropriate portion of our music budget, the care of our facilities and grounds, our need for staff, our ministry to our children and youth, increased outreach and service, commitments to the wider church, the purpose and use of our endowment, and the use of our assets. Sometimes different people have different visions of how we operate as a local church. And yet … and yet … we manage to gather together every week in our work and worship. Some mysterious force draws us together beyond our struggles.
Disagreement and division are nothing new to the Christian community. Managing our differences is tiring and disheartening (at least it is to me). We will always have issues on which we disagree. That does not mean we are not united.
The UCC has a fierce commitment to unifying people, even people who are about as far apart as you can imagine. Some quick UCC history: Four distinct groups from four distinct parts of the world somehow managed to form the United Church of Christ in 1957. We call these four groups, or four streams, the Congregational, Christian, Reformed, and Evangelical churches. The leaders and members of those distinct communions did not agree on everything. Yet, they came together. They found unity. The 1957 Basis of Union states, “In all our expressions of that faith we seek to preserve unity of heart and spirit with those who have gone before us as well as those who now labor with us.”
Unity is still a part of who we are today. The UCC is still out there, uniting with more and more people – uniting in mission, uniting in peace and justice efforts, uniting across national and international boundaries, and uniting with other faith traditions.
So, what’s going on here? Why would local church members like us at CCC be us willing to meet together week after week when we don’t always agree? Why would a denomination like the UCC work so hard to bring more diverse experiences and points of view into our faith and life?
The UCC believes that God calls us – as our very top priority - to pull people together, to seek and celebrate similarities rather than differences, even when that’s the hardest thing to do.
Those four distinct streams that merged into one, the Congregational, Christian, Reformed, and Evangelical churches, never could have united if they first had to hammer out some sort of common doctrine or dogma. If they formed a four-way ad-hoc committee to hammer out a common statement of faith before they could unite, the union never would have happened. Instead, they focused on their common mission. They chose to emphasize their actions of love, mercy, and justice in the world. The UCC is committed to bringing people together –different, differing, disagreeing and even disagreeable people. We live out Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17, “My prayer for them is not for them alone, but for ALL who hear my message...that ALL of them may be one.” John 17:21 may be the most important scripture passage in the UCC.
Unity does not mean we all need to believe the same thing, or sign the dotted line of a creed before we become a member. We cannot be a united and uniting church, and, at the same time, insist that everyone believe the same way. Our unity has nothing to do doctrine. The UCC is far more concerned about feeding the hungry, taking care of the poor, and working toward justice for all people, regardless of their beliefs, their religion, or their nationality. To put it another way: In essentials, unity; in non-essentials,diversity; in all things, love.
I really think that what pulls us together each week, what makes us united and uniting, is not about what we choose to agree and disagree on. We gather because, despite all that, we need each other. We are broken, hurting people who want to heal our broken, hurting world. We know we can gather together with our brokenness, our sin, and our hurt … we can remember God does not just love the good, pious, faithful parts of us that we share at coffee hour, but also loves the grungy, grumpy, disheveled, and disordered parts of us as well.
Only in our brokenness is our true love revealed. Only when we are fully known, can we be fully loved.
United and uniting, in love. On a practical level, it means, also, that we must value each another with such care and affection that we always treat one another with respect, honesty, and kindness. It means that we speak directly to one another – not indirectly through others or in hiding behind one another’s back. It means we must have the courage, confidence, and respect to relate openly and kindly to one another – never through gossip and back-biting. It means we are intentional about our care and treatment for one another. It means fostering a community of healing in which everyone exists to support others in our brokenness. The modern-day mystic Joan Chittister call it “mutual obedience”. She says:
Mutual obedience --In 2015, in what the news called “The Miracle at Quecreek,” nine miners were trapped for three days 240 feet underground in a water-filled mine shaft “decided early on they were either going to live or die as a group.” The 55 degree water threatened to kill them slowly by hypothermia, so according to one news report “When one would get cold, the other eight would huddle around the person and warm that person, and when another person got cold, the favor was returned.” As one miner said, “Everybody had strong moments. But any certain time maybe one guy got down, and then the rest pulled together. And then that guy would get back up, and maybe someone else would feel a little weaker, but it was a team effort. That’s the only way it could have been.” They faced incredibly hostile conditions together–and they all came out alive together.
the willingness to listen
to the needs
and the hopes,
the dreams and the ideas
of those around us
rather than promote our own
is surely the foundation …
It is what we need
to be able to think newly
because we think
with the others
about their ideas
rather than simply
about our own.
It is the way we come to learn
respect and reverence,
for the insights of others
are meant to become
of the next step
on our own path …
“Obedience to one another”
is the strength of community,
the brilliance of community,
the voice of community
in the midst of which
we can now hear
the voice of God.
What a picture of being united and uniting. Not uniformity, but mutual care and attention. Mutual commitment to the survival and flourishing of one another so that we not just come out alive, but we do it together. We are all different, diverse, and we even disagree, and we still find ways to articulate and live out our common identity as followers of Jesus. We do it in a thousand different ways. Let our unity be one like the seas that salt a thousand shores. Let our unity be one like the wind is one, though whisper, though rush, though roar. Let our unity be one like a symphony orchestra is one as it plays a thousand different notes at the strokes of a conductor’s baton. Let our unity be one like the birds are one, though they sing a thousand songs. Let our unity be one as our prayers are one, though voiced in a thousand tongues. Let our unity be one, as light is one, though made of a thousand hues of the spectrum. Let our unity be one as God’s love is one – God’s love for a thousand times a thousand times a thousand people, known and unknown. Let our unity be one as God’s love is one God is one: Creator, Christ, and Spirit.