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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

The Cost of Unity

After reading Ephesians 4:1-16 and Psalm 133

The dismantling racism purpose group that I am a part of recently finished what still feels like the first draft of our Bible study curriculum that was made available to churches in our Presbytery. It’s a collaborative work that we have been putting together over the past few months, as a way for churches to begin the work of engaging with racism, and as the name of our purpose groups suggests, commit to dismantle the racism that is present in our world.

The purpose group has been a blessing to me personally, as it has given me the excuse to pair with some really amazing people this past year during our efforts at the curriculum, at building the retreat that happened in January of this year, and in just sitting and talking together about how to make the space available to our own churches and to others in the presbytery, to begin or continue along this good path. The most enlightening and encouraging thing came when we had an interest lunch this past fall for churches who wanted to approach this issue with our curriculum and our help. What developed in that place, was very much like our Courageous Conversations that some folks here at our church experienced just last week. That is to say, a large group of people, from many backgrounds, all along a spectrum of understanding, sharing bravely what it was that they, or their church believed. Much like the experiences I have had in Richmond’s “Coming to the Table” group, it seemed good just to be in that space where voices about where our churches were could share openly. Just like our conversation last week with Alan Hilton, the purpose of it was not to condemn one another or solve the issue, but to hear each other, and through that -- listen for what the Spirit had to say to the church.

There have been a few churches who sent folks in particular who were deeply appreciative of that time. Not just to talk together and to hear the voices of others from whom they did not normally hear, but to also know that they were not alone in the work of finding or being on the path.

We spend a lot of time alone.

There is a book called “Them: Why we hate each other -- and how to heal,” by Ben Sasse, that talks a lot about being alone. If that title sounds familiar, it’s because Alan Hilton mentioned it to us last week. In the book, it talks a little about the heatwave of 1995 in Chicago, and the 739 people that died in that week because of the heat. So many people ran their AC units to beat the 120 degree heat index, that the city’s power grid shut off. Without access to cool air, hundreds died, and it was such a divergence from their normal mortality rate that morgues had to rent refrigeration trucks to store the bodies. It took a sociologist, Eric Klineburg, five years to nail down why the death tolls seemed to align themselves along neighborhood lines. That is, some neighborhoods fared better and some worse in terms of how many people died there. Through his study he found that those neighbors who knew who was old and sick and alone would check in on them. In neighborhoods that were abandoned by service providers, and hosted solitary residents, the deaths were exponentially higher. In the neighborhoods of solitary people, in those places where an interwoven community did not reside, it took weeks to find the bodies of people that had passed.

Our reading from Psalms says, “How good and pleasant it is, to dwell together in unity...” When we are alone we die. We suffer. Isolation turns something that is dangerous into something can be deadly. We can isolate alone, or even in small pod, but the result is much the same. Suffering and fear.

We know that isolation isn’t good for us, but there are all kinds of isolation that we experience nonetheless. In the whole letter of Ephesians, Paul is inflamed by the Spirit to write out why and how the breaking of the church into tribes, or isolated communities within the church are inherently against the Gospel that Jesus came to bring. That further, even if they were unified as a church, any further segregation from the rest of the community would still be against the purpose of a real disciple of Christ. In the very first verse of chapter 4, some translations will say “live a life,” others will say walk, which I kind of like better because it is closer to the Greek work here. Because the intention of the Greek is the kind of walk that you take in order to live. The walk that carries you through every part of your life. To the grocery, the school, the workplace, the home -- essentially, “Everywhere that your feet take you” that is where Paul is begging the church to go and be in the way intended for them by God. As a community, as a fellowship, further described in the following verses, before he again reminds the church, You are One. One calling which brings us, one Lord, faith and baptism within our faith, and further, One God of all of Creation.

The Holy Spirit inspires Paul to write this to the church of several thousand years ago, and it inspires us to listen to it today. It is no more or less true for all that intermittent time. It matches for Paul, the Hebrew understanding of the goodness of unity. The Psalmist’s “How good it is...” to be cared for by neighbor. How pleasant to be one in unity together. It’s an inherent good. It is the life that God intends from the first moments of creation as we know two were created when one just wouldn’t suffice. It is the life that God means for us to have at the end of all things when we read about the holy city in Revelation who’s gates are never shut, and which practices the radical openness of God meant for the whole of the world. Anything that creates disunity is sin, and the wages of sin, as we know, are death.

Again from the reading I did in Ben Sasse’s book “Them;” what are the the biggest killers in 2016, outside of Heart Disease and Cancer? Anyone want to guess? Write it out on a slip of paper? Three things. Alzheimer’s, suicides, and unintentional injuries -- a category which makes the list because it includes drug overdose. Drug overdose are almost twice the number of car accidents per year, which long held the title as our biggest killer. Today in 2019, the numbers of these types of death three have gone up, and though they lost their top spot they still feature in the top ten. In 2016 the number of suicides hit a 30 year high, a trend which has continued. The author’s point is that we are dying of despair. The isolation we feel, which we sometimes purposefully and sometimes incidentally reinforce, is killing us on a national level.

“How good and pleasant it is to dwell together in unity...”

There are folks who don’t think that the church is the proper place to talk about racism. And perhaps that comes out of the knowledge of how scripture was perverted and twisted for so many years to support the sin of chattel slavery, in this very city.

But I think it bears a place in our meditation on these verses as we read them 400 years past those dark and perverse days. Perhaps we are afraid of the word racism, that has such a large load of baggage we cannot bear it, or approach it. Yet it is important for us. As the church. As people who are on this “walk” in our lives. As people who’s walk takes them on this street, and in this capital, all the places that our feet carry us in our life are in desperate need of the unity of Christ that we were meant to experience. We are in need of this imperative of the Gospel, and of this revelation of God’s intention for the world.

So we must talk about it. No matter what our fear or trepidation. And we must trust God’s spirit as it reaches across the differences of background and education. We are built as the body of Christ, which creates new connecting tissue across cultural distinctions and all the contrasting kinds of traumas we experience. And this isn’t a smoothing over of our edges into a homogeneous soup of Christianity. This is an individually gifted, many parted body, the multi faceted faithful kind of unity. One Faith, one baptism, one Lord, One Bread, One Body, One cup of blessing, and within that, all of the beautifully diverse pieces of the whole bearing one another in love.

How good and pleasant it is...

Coming to the Table, which I mentioned before, if you haven’t yet heard of it is based on a Quaker model of coming together, and feels very much like our Courageous Conversations that we had just last week here at the church. The intent is to bring people across the spectrum and experience of race together, and to have them talk, make mistakes, and eat with one another. There are some guidelines to keep things loving, and there is usually a facilitator, and the purpose is not to solve or fix anything or anyone, but to share and listen and hear. The thing that I heard the most there, and in some of our presbytery conversations the same thing was said, but it is this; “I never knew.” Someone would share their experience or their hurt or their intention, and people of every color, all along the wide berth of understanding, would say the same things. “I never knew.”

Racism is one of the opposing forces that runs counter to God’s will of unity and wholeness for the world. If we don’t keep talking about it, hearing experiences, sharing our hurt, exposing our ignorance, then we will only live in the world of “I never knew.”

When we speak the truth in love, Paul says, we grow into our true maturity as Christians. When we hear one another. When we listen. We become the real church with Christ at our Head. “I never knew,” is the door chime of maturity coming to visit. For Paul, what is the alternative to speaking our truth to one another in love? Dark understanding. Separated living. Impurity and greed. From her book “Dust Tracks On the Road,” african-american anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston said, “there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” It seems Paul would agree. Speaking to one another, telling our stories of truth and even hearing them in love, or living in agony and isolation. That is what is at stake.

Living into our roles as people who are committed to dismantling the racism that can separate us, sets us on the path of unity that has so long been divided by our social institutions. The church still suffers from self inflicted wounds that broke communities into pieces and systematically established the walls and chasms that separate our communities in this city ideologically and physically. In the midst of this reality, Paul brings us hope. The psalmist reminds us of how good it can be. The blessing of unity has been commanded by God, and it is like cool dew on a hot and dry mountain. It is like a soothing oil on places in our bodies that have been worn and withered from the sun and our labor. It is so good and pleasant. It is what the church is meant to be when it grows up. It is how we live every part of our lives. It is the fullness of what we were created, and gifted, and called to be.

And I’m so proud that Grace Covenant is a church of folks who are on that path, walking in their lives, already answering part of the fullness of the call. We know that we have been on the path, not finished with the work, but on the path, with one another within the church as we reach out to each other and have more of these Courageous Conversations, as we continue to love and care for one another, to know one another, to check in on one another, to speak our truth in love to one another. And we have been on the path outside of our family, as even this week we host CARITAS, use the blessing of our endowment funds to aide our local communities, continue our deep relationship with Shalom Farms, and build our community out in a widening circle to the city and the world.

I know we will continue to confront racism and division wherever they lie because it is against God and the hard work of unity that God means for the church to dwell within. I know we will continue on this path, because it is so good and pleasant to do so.

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