1 Samuel 12:19-24
I can remember the first time I read the part of Jesus’ prayer that we just heard from John’s gospel. I suddenly realized in a very personal way that Jesus’ was praying for me! When he knew he was walking into a trap and that his life hung in the balance, he prayed for me! And for you too. I heard deep in my soul the words, “on behalf of those who will believe in me through [the disciples’] word,” and knew that meant me, two thousand years beyond that night. This is what Jesus wanted for me, to live in Jesus, just like Jesus lived in the heart of God, and that I might have Jesus’ glory! Glory! And that God would love me as much as God loved Jesus! Jesus prayed all of this for me! And you too.
It took years, and I mean years, before I really realized deep in my heart that Jesus was praying this for you too. Well, of course Jesus would pray all these things for you, here in this room, people I cherish. It took years to realize that Jesus was praying for what we would call in the south “all y’all.” Jesus was praying for everyone who would come to know God through the witness of Jesus’ disciples. I heard all the love and glory words for myself—and you. And eventually I heard the love and glory words for all y’all. What I didn’t hear, and what’s still hard for me to live into, is the part about us being one, belonging to each other because we belong to God. I belong to you and you belong to me. I embrace that in this room. I’m not so good at embracing my brothers and sisters in Christ who think differently from me; who interpret the Bible differently, who worship differently, who pray differently.
In fact, two days from now our United Methodist denomination is going to gather, as it does every four years, for General Conference in Portland, Oregon to do the work of guiding, structuring, and governing our denomination in a democratic process based on the American congress, and you know how well that’s going. Ours is a denomination that struggles to maintain unity. We have existed about as long as the United States and we have split into hundreds of denominations over a number of issues, among them the term of bishops, purchasing private pews, slavery, and the tension between personal holiness and social holiness. We have argued about the ordination of women and inclusion of gender minorities. That’s within our denomination.
I cannot tell you how hard it is to work between denominations. Our Island Thanksgiving celebration is structured to avoid any elements of worship so that worshiping communities can be together without offending one another. It’s the Christian communities that argue about the worship elements, not our Jewish or Buddhist brothers and sisters. I took a class in seminary about preparing for worship. The class was discussing communion. I mentioned that United Methodists have an open table where all are welcome. The Catholic woman who had been sitting next to me all quarter said, “I could never take communion with you. You don’t understand that the bread is the actual body of Christ.” I was more than a little taken aback. I spent the rest of the day sorting out why the open table is so important to me as a United Methodist. It was a great theological lesson for me. The next week, when I took my seat in class, my Catholic neighbor put her hand on my arm and said, “I am so sorry. I have been sick all week because of what I said to you. I would be honored to eat at Christ’s table with you.” We both learned a lot about being the body of Christ.
It’s a lovely coincidence that this reading falls on Mother’s Day, a day the church calls the Festival of the Christian Home. Being a mother, or a father, teaches us how different children who share the same DNA can be. We love each child for exactly who they are and we want them to love each other as much as we love them. But that is not always how it turns out. I think it must break God’s heart the way it does a human parent’s when siblings don’t get along.
Our siblings are the only ones who share our history and who love and honor our parents, even though our experiences of those same parents may be completely different.
Our unity is a gift from God. Our unity is Jesus’ prayer for you and me. We’re the ones who squabble, disagree, need to be right, belittle, take our ball and go to our room, call names, even pack our bag and move out. I got caught doing that very thing this week when I didn’t attend the national day of prayer event because I have not liked the way my brothers and sisters prayed the last time I went, or the way I was treated as female clergy at the breakfast. I got my nose bent out of shape and I took my ball and stayed in my room. Why do I expect everybody else to change? Or to believe the same way I do? Or to have the same experience of God that I do? Or to pray the way that is most satisfying to me? Jesus prayed that we would be one, maybe not united in thought, but certainly united in love. And if I want to live in God’s heart, maybe I’d better get used to sharing that space with people who are different in so many ways from me. The reason I pray for other churches every week is to remind us that we are one, that we have been given to one another by God’s grace and we belong to each other. So how do I live into that unity with an openness and graciousness that allows for difference and diversity? How do we encourage that in one another? May God grant us the courage to love beyond our differences and celebrate our diversity.