Sunday, May 24, 2020
Many of you know that I’m originally from Nebraska, but growing up when people asked me where I was from I would say, “Omaha,” to emphasize that I was from the largest city in the state, not from the middle of nowhere with a cornfield or cows in my backyard. Well, as they say, God has a sense of humor, so of course when I was first called to serve as pastor back in Nebraska, I lived literally with a cornfield in my backyard, seven miles from the nearest town of 1200, two hours west of Omaha. I learned so much living with the people there, and it really helped me fall in love with my home state. A lot of my stereotypes were blown. For example, my congregation was made up of about 80% farmers or retired farmers, but some of them had not just bachelor’s but master’s degrees. Farming today is not just a lot of work, it requires running a small business and knowing quite a lot of science about growing things. My farmers were philanthropists, world-travelers, well-read, and adventurous – we even enjoyed going out for sushi in addition to the traditional steak and potatoes. One thing for sure, most Nebraskans probably know more about you New Yorkers than you know about them! I’ll never forget the funny story that one of our farmers shared – he was traveling in Paris, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and as he was waiting at the base to ascend the tower steps, he ran into someone from his hometown of Polk, Nebraska. Polk is a town of about 700 people. I would be surprised if any of you know where it is. What are the odds, statistically, of two people from Polk, Nebraska unbeknownst to either being at the Eiffel tower on the same day?! Or how about this past February, I was walking through Central Park with a friend and ran into someone I knew, on a random Friday at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. What are the odds? It’s moments like these that I think God reminds us that we are more connected than we realize; that in a sea of 7.8 billion people, we would happen to know that person at the Eiffel tower, or in Central Park.
This morning Jesus prays that we might be one, as Jesus and God the Father are one. It’s important to know that Jesus’ prayer for unity for us is not that we conform to all be the same or think the same way. As we look forward to celebrating Holy Trinity Sunday in two weeks, remember that as Christians we confess that God’s very self is diverse – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” as the hymn goes. God is holy one and holy three. Unity is not uniformity for Jesus.
And yet, Jesus prays that his disciples, which includes us, might be one as he is one with the Father. Unity in Christ is not uniformity, but to be one in Christ is to see that we are connected to each other and to God. We need each other. We are a part of a larger whole. As Americans, we have been taught to value individualism to a fault, and so remembering and valuing our interconnectedness does not always come naturally to us. It’s individualism that causes us to worry about ourselves more than the person down the street or a few stops down on the LIRR line that has it worse than us, to not honestly know anything about Nebraska or Idaho or other “middle of nowhere” places, much less know the location of certain countries in Africa or who the president or prime minister is of most of the countries in the world. Jesus explicitly expresses concern for the whole world in his prayer, but I would guess that the disciples, like we do, were probably more concerned about whether they might get killed along with Jesus on the cross, not really thinking much about their neighbors across the street or across the globe.
Certainly during this time of COVID-19, we all have likely experienced some disconnection. While we may feel more closely connected to some people, not being able to be physically connected for almost three months at this point is taking its toll. In some ways, we are learning to value our connections to others in ways we may have missed before. In other ways, fear of the virus and of strangers or the unknown drives us further into self-protective shells, where we hoard supplies, avoid eye contact, and forget about the needs of our neighbors. Jesus’ prayer for his disciples before his death, resurrection and ascension, and for us now, is to connect us back to each other and to God. Our connection to God drives us to care about others and this world God so lovingly made in a way that matters.
Now, in a time of crisis when it is so easy for us to think only of ourselves, it is even more important for us to consider our connection to others and Jesus’ desire for us to be one with our fellow believers. After all, our primary Christian witness to the world is that we are able to show love and live out God’s love for the world. In seeking our unity in Christ, it’s important to remember that we are not the same. Our experience of this pandemic is not all the same. For some, we may even be enjoying a little more alone time, more free time, more family time, and so on. For others, this experience is incredibly difficult and isolating. For others, like essential workers, like the homeless and incarcerated, social distancing is difficult or impossible, and they have had to put their lives at risk whether by choice or not. Some can work from home, many have lost their jobs. For families with school-aged children, some find homeschooling a joy, a hassle, or sadly, for some, homes become unsafe because of abuse. Weeks of stay at home orders aren’t easy for our church, true, but also for many businesses and for recovering alcoholics and addicts and the list goes on. God’s love for the whole world, and Christ’s call for us to remember our interconnectedness and our unity in him, means we are called by God to care about others and what they are going through right now, even when their reality is unpleasant. More so than ever, for those of us who are blessed to be financially well-off or at least not as hard hit, for those of us who have our health and healthy living environments, we need to consider how we can help. Who do we know who is more isolated or more tragically affected by this virus? What organizations can we work with to promote mental health resources, crisis hotline numbers, food, clothing, and other economic assistance? And let’s not forget the simple yet essential power of prayer for all of us, but especially for those who are most suffering right now.
Jesus, in his call for us to be one with him, connects us to God and to one another. This is how he prays, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In the acts of lovingkindness we show to our neighbors, who are fellow human beings to whom we are connected, we connect others to God and thereby eternal life! It is no small thing that the smallest thing we do, from our prayers, our service, our advocacy, our witness, we connect others to God’s eternal life. Each of us will live God’s mission out a little differently, but it is God’s love that connects us and in the end, makes us one in Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.