November 20, 2016 —Thank Offering Sunday

Church of Peace, UCC

John 17:1-5, 12-24

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

 

What Shall We Bring?

(seventh in the series “Following Jesus through the Fourth Gospel”)

 

The classic motto of the United Church of Christ comes from the scripture we hear this morning. It is from Jesus’ prayer and it goes “That they may all be one.” Jesus is praying to God: “The glory you have given me, I have given them, so they may be one, as we are one… That they may be completely one so the world will know that you have sent me and loved them.”

 

From the merger of four Christian traditions into two, then the merger of the Evangelical and Reformed church with the Congregationalist Christian churches in nineteen fifty-seven, the United Church of Christ was formed with unity as one of our most deeply held Christian values.

 

Something similar could be said about the founding our nation nearly two hundred years earlier. Unity from diversity is one of our most deeply held American values. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one; it’s right there on the money. And yet, I wonder how you are feeling about unity these days…

 

In these weeks after the election, what has come to light is just how profoundly divided we are. There are divisions in the same neighborhood, edges of division in our church family, edges marking division right through our own families.

 

These days when I hear leaders talk about unity, it’s a problem. At best, it sounds like they don’t understand how deeply we are divided, so all this unity business feels sugary sweet and impossibly naive. At worst, unity starts to sound like a euphemism for submission — “Stop fighting, get in line, be quiet. We’re going to be unified, like it or not.” Yeah, that doesn’t work.

 

If unity is the condition of being one, then I’m struggling to put my faith in this status. But if unity is more about the activity of uniting, more about the work of getting into this place, well that’s different. That might be exactly where I mean to put my faith.

 

As a condition, unity is hard to believe in. As an activity, working toward unity can be difficult in another way. It’s the ugly side of peacemaking. It is discovering that the person you’ve lived next to for all these years does not share your values. This is the work that exposes our deal-breakers. It draws us right to the edge of our limitations, and maybe we can each stretch a little further, or maybe not. And what if we’re more fractured than we’d like to believe?

 

Ring all the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

[‘cause] there’s a crack in everything… right? (Leonard Cohen understood.)

 

 

 

Today we are concluding our fall series called Following Jesus Through the Fourth Gospel. New Testament Professor Karoline Lewis observes that instead of “show and tell,” in the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches by telling then showing.[1] In our scripture this morning, Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the hours leading up to his death. Instead of going off by himself, Jesus is praying out loud in front of them. He’s telling and showing at the same time.

 

First, consider the setting for this prayer. There is a sharp edge dividing the followers of Jesus from the rest of the world, a sharp edge running between those who have power and those who don’t. Now even among Jesus’ disciples there is conflict —a fracturing between who’s in and who’s out, betrayal and confusion over what to make of Judas. We trusted him! How could he turn on us?

 

And here Jesus is preparing to leave them at what might be the worst possible time. He’s not leaving because he finished the work and helped set the world in a place of peaceful stability. If anything the opposite is true! This is the moment when things are falling apart, we’re not sure who to trust, and the threat is intensifying. What kind of prayer could possibly help?

 

Jesus tells and shows at the same time. He looks up to heaven and begins “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son so your Son may glorify you, so I may glorify you…” (John 17:1). He goes on explaining to the LORD how he has tried to give the word to the disciples so the disciples may know God. He asks God to protect them because they are afraid. Jesus says, “Father, I am not asking you to take the disciples out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from evil. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world” (John 17:15-16). Yet we live in the world, our lives are in the world.

 

A prayer for protection makes sense. A prayer with words of comfort, that makes sense. The next thing Jesus prays for does not seem to make sense. He finishes these final words by asking God to make us one. He asks loud enough for the disciples to hear every word, because he’s really talking to them. He’s really asking the disciples to go out to the edge of division and begin the hard work toward unity.

 

“I ask not only on behalf of the disciples, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” That we may all be one, is Jesus’ prayer for us. So the world will know God’s love.

 

 

 

A few months ago, I decided to go back to learning beginning yoga. I am a person who struggles with flexibility. So maybe if I learn yoga, my body can teach the rest of me. I will let you know how that goes. Already I am learning what it’s like to be confronted by my body’s limitations. A soothing voice talks me into the middle of a deep stretch, then she says, get this, “Bring your back arm alongside the ear and turn your head to gaze up at the ceiling.” Yeah, I don’t bend that way! Yet.

 

A friend reminded me of a question her yoga teacher asks: What are you bringing to your limitations? It’s tempting to bring force, like if I just push through the pain, that’ll help. Or it’s tempting to give up and decide this is not for me. It is especially tempting to think these are the only two choices —force or resignation, fight or flight, but what if that’s not true…

 

I know we don’t always get to choose our limitations. There are things I cannot do with my body. There are divisions in our nation that will not be easily resolved. Sometimes we go up to the edge on our own, and sometimes the edge confronts us. But when that happens, what do we bring?

 

Because you know the world will send us to the edge with a snarky meme to post on Facebook, with a scathing polemic against the other side. The world will send us to the edge wearing riot gear and carrying weapons. And I’m here to tell you, we don’t have to bring this stuff. We have something better.

 

We have something to bring to the protestors whether their signs say Black Lives Matter or Police Lives Matter. We have something to say to our neighbors who are shaken by another shooting down the street. We have something to give to Muslim families who are afraid, to white families who are afraid, to Mexican families who are afraid. We can go right up to the edge of division bringing compassion. Of all things.

 

Look, I know how this sounds. In case you’re feeling, “but I don’t have any compassion toward them” (whoever “them” is). That’s just the thing. We don’t have to come up with this compassion all on our own. We get it from Jesus. We learn it from him, and then from each other.

 

So I’m convinced. If we have any hope of becoming one, and we do, it will not come from winning a dispute, nor from banishing those who make us afraid. We have what we need to work toward unity; somewhere within us, we already have the compassion of Jesus Christ.

 

 

In the Gospel of John,  Jesus teaches by telling then showing. Now after this long prayer telling God how he loves the disciples, Jesus finally gets up from the table. His disciples go with him, and they walk across the Kidron Valley to a garden. Jesus walks up to the edge of division where Judas has come to meet him.

 

Judas has brought a cadre of soldiers and police fully armed, carrying lanterns, and torches, and weapons. On Jesus’ side, Peter has brought a sword. And nobody asked him to do that! With nothing in his hands, Jesus steps forward and speaks the name of the LORD. “Here I am.” Then nothing is the same after that.

 

Ring all the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in. [2]

 

So the Gospel ends as it begins. If only God hadn’t loved this hurting, hating, violent, broken world. If only the LORD our God said, “Yeah, I’m going to wait for them to figure out unity and get it together…” Instead it is God who goes right out to the edge, and she gives the world her son.

For God so loved the world…

For God so loves the world he keeps giving and giving…

Now when we are the ones who go out to the edge, we have something to bring. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Professor Lewis highlighted this point at The Craft of Preaching conference, October 2016, at Luther Seminary.
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCS_MwkWzes

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