Last week I had the rich blessing of canoeing in Canada with a wonderful group of people. Thirteen of us, mostly from our church, spent the week in the wilderness, canoeing some 60 miles and learning a lesson that is always highlighted on our retreat: what it means to live in community. One night during vespers we turned to a familiar and beloved Psalm (133):
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
The image of living together in unity as a blessing is powerful. The words describing the abundant blessed oil anointing Aaron the priest and servant of God, or the image of dew falling on Mt. Hermon bearing the only moisture that a desert climate may know, speak of how precious that blessing is. Well, certainly living in community in unity reflects the beauty of that blessing. But unity doesn’t mean homogeneity – unity isn’t about all being the same. Rather, it is about each of us sharing our unique and diverse gifts in the service of God, and of a vision that transcends ourselves. That vision appears throughout scripture, whether in an Old Testament Psalm, or in the image of Jesus’ diverse band of followers. Unity in God is a celebration of each person in their unique ways being celebrated as equally loved and valued in the eyes of God. It certainly was a constant part of our trip – but then it was a part of each of the experiences of ministry at Peace UCC over the summer from Habitat trips and VBS to the day-to-day workings and worship of the congregation.
There are lots of times when we think that unity looks like uniformity – but I don’t experience that as the vision God offers. Rather, our conversations and gifts are enhanced by our differences.
At our annual meeting this fall, we will be taking a vote on whether or not to declare our church Open and Affirming – a designation within the UCC that speaks to our welcome and inclusion of all people. There is a particular requirement that this include people of diverse expressions of human sexuality, because in this moment in time these individuals are particularly singled out by much of the church as being welcome only if they change. For someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer or questioning (LGBTQ+) they know that the three largest denominations within the United States and many others welcome them with the caveat that their fundamental understanding of who they are is sinful and therefore must change in order to be acceptable. The issue is at the heart of culture wars that have been dividing many within the church. In the division, I hear positions of fear trumping those of compassion.
This week I saw a cartoon that spoke to the challenge of our being faithful: it showed a man and a woman standing in front of laden bookshelves with the caption “We may have the same books, but we highlight entirely different passages.” This is the struggle for us as the church as we decide which “sins” to highlight and which to ignore… when we believe we can decide how abundantly God’s grace is offered, to whom, or under what circumstances.
We have the opportunity to affirm our openness to seeing God’s blessing in the rich diversity of humanity. And to move our conversations more closely toward the celebration of how good it is when kindred dwell in unity… even when their highlighting is different.
Some speak of the unity that we embrace as our equality at the foot of the cross of the one who offered self-sacrificing love rather than self-serving judgement. May God continue to bless us with the gifts of discernment as we journey together with one another and with God! Pastor Eric