That We May Be One
Reflections on Charleston and Race
Perhaps you saw the cartoon in the New Yorker this week. It had a bunch of people standing around at a cocktail party and a guy pretty much like any of us, says, “Actually, I live in New Jersey but… I identify as New York.” (Raise my hand)
That was pretty good. I’m not sure what to say about a woman that is reportedly of German, Swedish, and Czech heritage that identifies as black. But it got me to thinking about the way that we Christians are literally from every different nation on this earth and yet we all identify as a “Child of God”.
That is actually one of our more profound spiritual idea that we are all children of God. But what we mean by that is really quite different. We mean that God accepts us all universally and also quite personally for who we are. I had a wonderful insight on that in a mildly awkward moment many years ago.
I was in San Francisco for a conference and it was Sunday, so I went to Glide Memorial Church downtown in San Francisco. This was the end of the era when gays were mostly all in the closet or they gravitated towards places like New York and San Francisco. Glide was one of the only churches that accepted gay people openly in church. And they also had a very active homeless outreach ministry. So when you showed up on Sunday morning, you would see families standing right next to homeless guys in the pew, next to white guys in bow ties like myself, next to a guy in drag.
So the Minister welcomed us all and asked us to turn to the person next to us and say, “Brother, peace be with you.” And we did. Only, I happened to be standing next to a guy that was dressed in a skirt, blouse and stiletto heels. I held out my hand and said, “Peace be with you, my brother… I mean my sister… I mean, what do I mean?” Awkward moment. We didn’t cover this in Divinity school.
He broke out in a wide smile and said, “Honey, I’m a Child of God”. And gave me a big hug. My new best friend. But I thought to myself, “you know, that is right”. We are first a child of God.
And because of that, we can be who we really are. We don’t have to be like other people that we are not to be accepted. God loves us and created us to be who we are meant to become, in all our specificity, in all our uniqueness.
Rabbi Zusha once said that when he gets to the afterlife, God will not ask him, “Why weren’t you more like Moses? Why weren’t you wiser like Solomon? Why weren’t you David?” No.
God will only ask me, “Why weren’t you more like Zusha?” Why didn’t you become who you were supposed to be? There is a radical specificity that God accepts in you that cannot be replaced.
Think about it. That is what we all experience if we are lucky enough to love and be loved. When people die that we love, there is something that is irreplaceable about them. They were warm and humorous in a way that no one else will be. They made us feel secure and joy filled in a way that no one could replace. They were eccentric and ornery in a way that we found endearing even if it was maddening at times. They were beautiful in their own way.
God loves you just for who you are and wants you to claim yourself in acceptance and become confident to be yourself. God wants you to be authentic and at peace. There isn’t another you. And you have a mission and a calling that makes your life the spiritual adventure that only you can really lead. So be free to become you and find your mission in this short time we have on earth to fulfill and express what you uniquely bring to contribute to human happiness in your community, in your era, with your family.
And there is also this universal part of identifying ourselves as Children of God, things that are true for all of us and they are some of the noblest thoughts in our tradition.
Because we believe that God accepts all of us. We are all God’s lost sheep. Jesus says that God is like a good shepherd that is willing to leave the 99 and come after this one last one because they are important enough to warrant God’s extraordinary compassion. God comes after you and you and you in acceptance and with love.
Jesus taught us that God is like a guy that throws a wedding feast and invites not just the people you would expect to be invited but God sends the servants out to the highways and the byways and beckons them to come in, to find their place at the table, in the joy of the beloved community, eating and drinking with good friends. You have a place at the table.
You have worth. You are worthy of respect and dignity. Treat yourself with dignity and respect. Treat other people with dignity and respect.
“We hold these truths to be self evident” wrote Jefferson, in the most elevated passage of political writing we have yet produced, that all of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or fulfillment as we would say today).
This is the universal part of recognizing ourselves and others as children of God. It is noblest part of our spiritual community and our social order as well.
That is why acts of terrorism are so pernicious, so negative, so evil. They violate the trust that binds us together in community. They sow doubt, suspicion and anxiety. They stir up hate, anger, enmity, vengeance. Powerful negative energy that destroys.
When things like this happen, I have to imagine that most every African-American person in our country silently wonders to themselves, “Can I really trust white people?” Like the woman wrote in the Op-Ed in the NYT on Friday (June 19th), “Can we really be safe?”
You might find yourself, wondering when you have those anxious thoughts, “Do they really accept us on a par? Will we ever really be peers, equals, just like everyone else?”
Terrorism is very effective. Because the weird thing about our anxieties is that they keep coming back to haunt us, even when we wish they wouldn’t. Even when we know rationally that the people around us are normal, peaceful, accepting. You still think these thoughts.
We are just wired to stay on edge, to be defensive.
And yet, we want to trust people. We want to love. We want to be in real community. The Gospel of John kind of sums up the whole message of Jesus in our passage today. “I pray… that you might all be one, even as I and the Father are one… I in them and Thou in me that they may become perfectly one… that others might know that Your love is in me and my love is in them”.
We have within our reach the simple and profound spiritual antidote to the negative energy that is released in wanton violence and terror. It is the power of blessing.
That is why weddings are so wonderful. All of your family, all of your friends, all the people that you care about gather from near from far, some of them from very far away, for no other reason than to bless you and ask God’s blessing on your life. “May you be long on this earth. May you prosper and find fulfillment. May you know the blessing of your children’s children. May God show you the way and go with you on your journey together.” We love you.
That is what is so profound about baptisms, when all of us pledge to help this young family to grow deeper, guided by our community and what we have learned in the past two thousand years about what is important in our lives, that this child might find real character, acceptance and love, that they might become responsible contributors in the future, that we might all be made better, more profound for being together in this short time we have on this earth.
It is what makes prayer so valued in our times off illness and threat. Right now I have a friend from High School that is being treated for cancer. She grew up Jewish, agnostic and she put this out there on Facebook that she was going for treatments, serious, difficult treatments.
So I wrote her a note. I know she is agnostic and Jewish but I told her that I would be praying for her and my church would be praying for her. She wrote me back, the New York theater sophisticate, and she said, “I am an inter-faith, any denominational receiver of prayers at this time. And thank you very much.”
I love Herbert Benson, the Professor at Harvard Medical School that did the research on prayer, comparing people prayed for versus people that weren’t prayed for. Multiple studies, all kinds of variation, and Benson concludes, “We may not know the mechanical how of prayer, but the fact is that prayer works.” People get better, faster. People that don’t get healed, have a better experience of their illness. Emotionally, spiritually, we are just better.
We need a blessing. We need the light poured into us. We need the positive power of the Spirit to surround us. We need love that builds trust and acceptance. This is the positive spiritual energy that we have as our resource. Think about what power you have at your hand.
I have hardly any memories from High School but I remember the one blessing from my football coach. We were watching the reruns of our game just a few clips and one of them was me intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown. Coach ran it, ran it in reverse, ran it again and he said, “Chuck you run like a gazelle”. I still remember that blessing. We were a little short on blessings back then.
Let’s not be short on blessing each other anymore. I want to close this service with a moment of blessing. I’m going to ask us to all gather in a great big circle. And we are going to hold hands in community together. I want you to turn to your right and put your hand on the person to your right. If you can reach their head, lay a hand really lightly on their head. If you can’t reach that high, lay a hand on their shoulder.
And for 20 seconds I want you to beam out God’s love for them, God’s blessing on them. I want you to invoke healing for them.
Now turn to the people on your left. Lay a hand on them.
Now hold hands together and lift them up together while I close us in a benediction.
May God our source hold you in strength, through your season of difficulty
May God our sustainer fill you with love and compassion in a world of need.
May God our future bloom you to become radiant, vibrant, passionate for life.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.