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The Value of Unity (John 17:20-26)
This day is what we like to call in the preaching business a no-win scenario. It’s Mother’s Day and, as a pastor, you are faced with two choices. First, honor by name the many varieties of motherhood, being sure to not leave anyone off the list. You will fail. Second, ignore the holiday altogether to avoid the trap of the first choice. Also a bad choice. To top it all off, I have my own mother sitting on the front row, right here! Ugh. There is no way to win. But then again, maybe that’s part of the problem…I’m trying to win Mother’s Day.
Mothering is not a winning proposition. Just ask anyone who has done any sort of mothering. It doesn’t win, it supports. It affirms, it nurtures, it stands in solidarity with…for that is the mark of whatever is this thing called “mothering”. And whatever it is, we can be sure that it is much more a verb than a noun, much more an action than a gender. The admittedly idealized role of the mother is to bring things together, to knit disparate strands, to assemble the pieces in what has really become a cultural ideal, though not limited to our culture. Many cultures attribute these qualities to mothers, and often to women in general..perhaps fairly, perhaps not. The danger, of course, of subscribing a set of characteristics to a specific group is that if an individual doesn’t meet that standard, so to speak, then they get condemned by category which is, in the words of poet Wendell Berry, “…the lowest form of hatred.” It can be easy to slip into this false narrative where motherhood becomes the exalted form of womanhood, the high ideal of feminine existence. Nope. Here in this sanctuary we have to lift up the assertion that all genders have the same high and holy calling – to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Then we have to learn, each and every one of us, how to live that out in our particular life.
This is why this is a ridiculous day for the pulpit. For motherhood is not monotone. Mothers come in all shapes and sizes. Some actually give birth, of course, but “mothering” is something that goes beyond biology. Maybe in our gendered world, we unfairly assign characteristics to people based on biology or appearance, but in some ways describing “mothering” or “fathering” also gives us a chance to talk about attributes that we experience, or wish we could experience. In fact, that has made it’s way into our theology, where we talk about God with both sides of our oversimplified dualistic gendered language. God is both “heavenly father” and “mother hen”, the prophet Isaiah speaks of God as a mother comforting her child, and in one of the creation stories from the book of Genesis, we are all made in the image of God. So when we unfairly assign characteristics to a single gender, perhaps we ought to broaden our scope of vision and remember the theological assertion that all our characteristics come from one place – God, the ground of our being, from where all genders originate and flow.
Besides, it’s not like we all agree on the nature of motherhood. For some it is only in the form of Leave it to Beaver, in pearls washing dishes. For others, it is equally specific and narrow. And for others, mothering comes just as well from two dads. We just don’t agree…heck, we don’t even agree on the holiday. It started first as a gathering for mothers after the civil war to mourn their sons from both sides of the conflict, but later became a time to promote a holiday for women, since all others seemed geared towards men. Only later did it becomes specifically about mothers, and then so commercialized that the originator of that version of Mother’s Day, Julia Ward Howe, began to actively campaign against it. So there is little unity on this topic. Is motherhood about helping raise children “properly”, or an ideal of what is most feminine among us? Or is it a bolder statement, defying the violence that can sometimes seem inherent in the masculine which subjects the very children born from women to death and destruction? Is Mother’s Day the ultimate feminist statement or a stale, gendered, role-enforcing promotion of patriarchy? Do we find a sense of motherhood in Mary’s acquiescence to her gendered role from her patriarchal culture or in her revolutionary prayer, the Magnificant, which calls for a reversal of the world, seeking care for those uncared for?
And yet, somehow, even though we cannot agree about motherhood…mothers still exist. In part because mothers of all kinds don’t really care if we agree on what they’re supposed to be doing, they’re too busy doing it. Which, in a super long and winding road, brings me back to our prayer today from John’s gospel…a prayer from Jesus to, well to God for sure, but also aimed, I think, a bit at us. We’re supposed to overhear this prayer, which serves as the foundational statement for the United Church of Christ, at least a little portion of this prayer…the phrase, “That they may all be one.”
This is a prayer about unity. And it is a prayer from Jesus that doesn’t really care if we “get it.” Jesus prays this about a bunch of disciples that , in John’s gospel, rarely get it, if ever. He prays this knowing that they will betray him, deny him, run away and hide. In John’s gospel, unlike our other gospels, Jesus has some secret knowledge…he seems to know what is going to happen far into the future. So as he prays this prayer about unity, he has to know that there will be precious little of it in his name for the foreseeable future. Unity, you see, is kind of like “motherhood”. What does it mean? Does unity mean some arithmetically generous number, like a trillion divided by itself? Is it, in the words of poet Michael Coffey, a lock-step compliance, an orthodoxy, the twentieth century hegemonic earthquake? Is it school uniforms and khakis, blue polos and neckerchiefs tied just so or sneakers with white socks pulled up? Or is it a polyrhythmic dance, a tango of color and symmetry? It’s a lovely idea, unity, but just a few years spent in the holy chaos that is the UCC at even the state level will give you an appreciation for how difficult unity can be.
It’s nothing new. When the Eastern and Western Orthodox churches finally broke it off in 1054, they had disputed about theology and praxis for at least 200 years. They couldn’t agree on if priests could marry; details about fasting and acceptable iconography; Latin or the common language for the Mass; if communion bread should have yeast; which geographical location had primacy; and, most importantly, how the Holy Spirit relates to the rest of the Godhead. They actually split, of course, over politics and economics, but that was possible because they couldn’t see how they could disagree and still be together.
That’s a hard one. Whether in the circus that is the election cycle or in our discourse over church, we can’t agree to disagree. In just a couple of weeks, our siblings in the United Methodist Church are going to vote on something that might make them not quite so united. The “issue” of LGBTQ rights, which is only an “issue” because it is defined as such by the majority, has been cratering the sense of unity among denominations for decades now. The United Methodists will test their own boundaries once again on this subject and many think that they will split over this. It has happened to everyone else, as we determine when and where our differences will mean divorce.
Unity, as expressed in this prayer, is a value. It is like compassion or humility, it is a virtue. And so we must be able to hold it as such, keeping it in tension with our other values. For the United Church of Christ, unity cannot be achieved at the expense of others. Just as some might claim that you cannot have a complete family if you leave someone out, we hold that unity that comes by demanding that someone else share your beliefs is not unity. It is coercion. And that is not a holy value. We always have to ask ourselves who is shouldering the burden of maintaining unity? Is church supposed to be a place where unity is enforced, or a place where unity looks more like refuge? Because unity, like mothering, doesn’t just mean one thing. It doesn’t mean indoctrination, or “signing on the dotted line”, or even agreeing. Unity is not getting everyone “right”…it is something else. And that might be one of the most challenging things for us today.
Let’s go back to the prayer, and try to read carefully. For the way that Jesus prays for us to be in unity, is unified by love…the kind of love that he prays is in God and in him and now, through him, in us. It’s directionally confusing in this passage, but the point is that the thing that unifies us is not belief or orthodoxy, not even common liturgy or orthopraxy…what is supposed to unify us is love. That is what Jesus is, what he teaches us God is and what he prays for us to be when he prays “may they also be in us”. This is a long prayer, so you know where we pastors get it…and just before the small section we heard today, Jesus says his followers are not “of this world.” In Greek, the word is kosmos…which is really something closer to system. Jesus says his followers operate out of a different system that the one everyone else uses. Our “system” isn’t supposed to be competition or consumption. We are supposed to act in all things, even how we are joined together, out of love. Love which, as the apostle Paul will soon teach, never gives up, cares for others more than self, doesn’t strut or boast, doesn’t coerce, isn’t “me first”, doesn’t keep score or enjoy other people’s suffering, but always looks for the best, gives the benefit of the doubt and keeps going to the end.
When I think of an ideal mother or an ideal father or an ideal Christian…I think of this kind of love practiced the best that we can. I think about our salvation coming not from how well we can defend the faith or argue for God or how we can win at being faithful…but coming instead from our capacity to love. Maybe if we stopped worrying so much about defining our unity or worrying how to enforce it and instead just started practicing it, we’d be closer than we ever have been. For what will save the world is not our ability to make the most effective argument, or to convert everyone over to our thinking…it will be the practice of love. Wasteful, grace-filled love handed out even to our enemies. That’s the best thing I know how to say about being Christian, and about being a parent, too.