“Is Unity Possible?”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis
8 April, 2018
Seeing is believing. That’s how the saying goes, anyway. Sometimes, too, believing comes by hearing the truth—and that’s what the disciples trusted as they shared the news of Jesus’ resurrection with their friends. And, as John pointed out in the concluding verses of our Gospel reading, the written word is also compelling for belief: “…these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…” (John 20:31).
So: Do you believe unity is possible? Have you seen it? Have you heard about it? Have you read compelling accounts of unity, so that you believe it’s possible even if it seems highly elusive?
Because we know we’ve seen the opposite of it. If there’s anything that’s stressing people out these days, it’s the predominance of divisiveness and rancor in our society. From the highest offices in our government, and between nations, right on down to our local politics and into many of our families—the talk is all about boundaries, borders, walls, outsiders, infiltrators, opportunists, corrupters. Not the stuff of unity.
It’s nothing new, of course. The poet who composed Psalm 133 probably wrote it at least a thousand years before Jesus lived—so, the psalm is more than 3,000 years old. “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” he enthused. It became a beloved “song of ascents”—a hymn that pilgrims would sing as they made their way up the hill toward Jerusalem from their homes for one of the three great feasts. The pilgrims would be singing in hope of the unity they hoped to experience with other Jewish travelers making their way back to the Holy City, even as they all recognized the divisions that separated them—starting with the division between the northern and southern kingdoms, and then the allegiances to the different tribes of Israel, some of which didn’t get along.
You probably wouldn’t write such a poem unless you knew the angst of strife, the heartbreak of family hostility and estrangement, the spiritually depleting realities that accompany the grudges born of discord. They knew as well as you and I do what it feels like when neighbors don’t get along; what happens when we fall into the easy patterns of tribalism, separation into camps of “us” and “them”, “insiders” and “outsiders”, those who “belong” and those who don’t. Unity, like the love that begets it, is hard work. But that work is rewarded with the life we’re spiritually longing for—life eternal.
It’s like the precious oil on the head, the psalmist said, overflowing and running down over the anointed one’s beard and the collar of his robes; it’s like the dew that rolls down from Mount Hermon, bathing the mountains of Zion. Now, I’ll grant that for most of us, the idea of oil dribbling down our faces, over beards, even, and soaking into our clothes is rather off-putting. I can’t say that I’d personally be gladdened by such an experience. But then, I don’t understand the tradition of dousing the coach in cold, sticky Gatorade or champagne after a big sports win, but the team leaders always seem to revel in the moment.
In order to fully appreciate the delight of the psalmist’s images, we need to place ourselves in the ancient Middle East in the late springtime or summer. Maybe some of you have been there and can attest to the arid climate that the psalmist would have inhabited. Imagine yourself walking in a dusty convection oven to come to worship. As they traveled some distance to the sacred Temple for a feast or holy day, the hot wind would have whipped around fine grit and the pilgrims’ faces and feet would have been chapped, and their bodies would have been a bit smelly from the journey. The idea of a beautifully fragrant, moisturizing oil bathing them would have been quite attractive—restorative, even. And the image of the morning dews rolling down in rivulets from Hermon, to irrigate the fields that yielded their food in Zion—it was literally life-giving. As they journeyed, they would sing this song expressing their longing for unity, which represented a fulfillment of their spiritual longing—a universal spiritual longing—their desire for peace.
It’s worth clarifying that unity in this context is not the same as uniformity. While the divine vision for our existence is one of unity and harmony, it is not God’s desire that we should all be the same. It might be our wish that others would just conform to our way of doing things, or seeing the world, to our notion of the best way of understanding things—but there’s an awful lot of ego or self-centered pride in that. Uniformity, or the expectation to conform, is what worldly powers tend to demand because it’s easier to control. But it serves to diminish the humanity and freedom of individuals because it fails to honor the dignity of God’s image in each unique creation. More often than not, in the name of conformity or uniformity, intimidation, force, and exclusion are used as tactics to sublimate God-given uniqueness for the sake of a selfish human agenda.
Unity, on the other hand, implies a covenantal relationship where the individuality of each one is honored; selfish desires and self-centered agendas are not.
Ours is a God who delights in diversity and complexity—all of nature speaks to that truth. What a dull place it would be if everyone were just like me . . . or you! And God longs for us to experience the power and joy of divine diversity in creation by setting aside our personal pride and allowing something greater than self to prevail; this is what unity accomplishes.
But how do we accomplish unity? I want to suggest that there are at least four essential components present in genuine unity—and all four reflect the nature and character of God.
First is hospitality. Unity requires hospitality—a generous reception of the other, a posture of welcome rather than suspicion or fear, especially of those who appear to be different. In hospitality, there is an implicit acknowledgement that the “other” possesses the image and breath of God, just as we ourselves do. If we remember that those who are foreign to us—even if they represent a threat to us—nonetheless are created and loved by God, it should keep us a bit more humble, make us a bit more curious, a bit less dismissive.
Second is listening. Unity cannot be achieved without genuine listening. Genuine listening is not merely a matter of hearing another’s words—it’s a practice of seeking deeper understanding about the other. It may or may not involve asking questions. Sometimes, listening happens in the absence of any words. Sometimes, the most profound listening happens while sitting in silence with another, paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us and between us. In genuine listening, there is an acknowledgment and honoring of the sacred uniqueness of the other.
Third is generosity. Unity requires generosity of spirit, as well as generosity of whatever other resources we have at our disposal. Generosity is an acknowledgement that all we have is a gift received from God, intended to be shared for the mutual strengthening and up-building of God’s peaceable kingdom.
Fourth and finally, is forgiveness. Unity is not possible without forgiveness, for each of us is broken and in need of grace. Despite our best intentions, sometimes despite our best efforts, we mess up and need the opportunity to try again. There is strength in the vulnerability of acknowledging our own imperfection and need for a fresh start. And there is great strength and power in the vulnerability of allowing the “other” to try again, too. In forgiveness lies the insurmountable power of Christ’s resurrection.
Who knows whether there was unity among the disciples who huddled in that upper room, before Jesus arrived? They certainly all shared a fear of those who might persecute them, which is why the door was locked against the world outside. But who knows how long the anxiety they held in common would have sustained any semblance of unity. Fear—in all its many guises, including mistrust or suspicion—is the great underminer. And it is the most certain thing to shatter hopes for resilient unity.
It’s easy to think that barricading ourselves against the things or people we mistrust will protect us. But what Jesus showed is that it really only imprisons us; it makes our own world smaller, less free. Still, John reports that, despite the locked door, Jesus entered that place and offered the thing that dispels fear: peace.
In a show of disarming hospitality, Jesus meets the disciples where they are: miraculously, he enters the room and twice says, “Peace be with you.” He shows them who he is, wounds and all, not fearfully but with a strength and confidence in God’s power to make him—and all of them—whole.
He genuinely listens to the disciples—he is deeply attentive to what their spirits are communicating. And he forgives them: he does not count their fearfulness or doubts against them, but time and again approaches them without defensiveness or blame. Each time, the first thing he presents is the profound peace that makes him different from the rest of the world. While the others rejoiced at seeing Jesus again, it was his lack of judgment or fear or blame that allowed Thomas to respond with the confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus was generous with all he had, and his generosity empowered the disciples to transform the world. He bequeathed to them (and to us) the powerful peace he himself possessed: he breathed on them, it says, as he said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And he gave them direction and purpose when he instructed them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” As disciples of Jesus Christ, you and I have received this same Holy Spirit, we are equipped to experience and share the profound peace that the Spirit bestows.
The world is desperate to see and hear and experience how good and pleasant it truly is when kindred—sisters and brothers of the same human race, different as we may be in many ways—live together in unity. We, the Church, are called and equipped, as the resurrected body of Christ, to show and tell the truth by practicing the unity that is God’s vision for all people—as we practice hospitality, as we genuinely listen, as we demonstrate forgiveness and generosity.
Seeing is believing, we’re told. Sometimes it takes hearing or reading to comprehend the truth. The Rev. Ken Samuel, one of the regular writers for the UCC’s Stillspeaking Daily Devotionals, interpreted Psalm 133 this way:
Our ears know the difference between harmony and cacophony. In harmony we hear a unity of sound, caused by an arrangement of musical notes that complement and complete each other. Cacophony is an assault upon the ear, caused by musical notes that clash and compete with each other, creating a dissonance of sound.
Each of us plays an instrument on the sound track of life. Our refrain across the centuries has not been harmonious. Our clashing and competition have reverberated through our history in the discordant notes of violent confrontation, religious rivalry and governmental gridlock.
But every so often, persons with different instruments, from different sections, who read from different scores, find a way out of hostility into harmony. Every now and then, people are moved to look beyond the notes of their myopic life concerns and notice the broader orchestration of life itself. Once in a while, the muse that inspires cohesion in the midst of our deepest complexities, wins the day.
When we cause the things that divide us to be superseded by the mandates of our common survival and our interdependent advancement, we bring upon ourselves the freshness of new life.
It’s like the freshness of morning dew nestled upon a mountain peak. It’s like the freshness of politicians who place the principles of democracy above party loyalty. It’s like the freshness of inter-faith dialogue and interracial reconciliation. It’s like the freshness of a global commitment to a clean, sustainable environment.
Rev. Samuel concludes with a prayer suited for all of us:
Lord, give me a fresh resolve to make the chords of harmony less infrequent in my
 StillSpeaking Daily Devotionals, “Freshness”, Sat., April 7, 2018.