God of all creation, you call us into communion with all that is. We live in sacred connection with the cashier at the grocery store, the ancient redwoods, and the child in the refugee camp.We confess that too often we live as our self-interest is all that matters. Give us the courage to live our sacred calling to communion. Give us the grace to embrace this and every moment of our lives. Amen.
Dedication of the Offering
Giving and receiving we commune with all creation, Holy God. We thank you for this sacred practice that heals the world. Amen.
This week I was describing our First Church South Church consolidation work to a colleague. He commented that in his therapy practice, he has been noticing that the competitive “divide-and-conquer” mentality we see on display in our politics is seeping into everyday the interactions and relationships of his clients. He continued, “In your church consolidation work you’re trying to build a culture of unity, and unity is in short supply these days.” Two implications of this observation: 1) If we’re finding consolidation work difficult, it’s because we’re going against the wider culture in some important ways, 2) The work of consolidation itself is important work for the wider culture. We’re demonstrating to Granby and beyond that “e pluribus unum” (our national motto: “out of many, one”) is still possible.
The competitive mindset is everywhere. It’s a basic component of our economy, for example. And I admit I can be an incredibly competitive person. I enjoy the feeling of “winning.” Which is why I found Pastor Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast this week so helpful. Listen to it here.
Carey Nieuwhof’s guest is Simon Sinek. You remember him! He is the “Start With Why” guy. We watched part of his TED talk during our “What is Your Why?” workshops last year. If you need a refresher on Sinek and his teaching on “Starting with Why,” you can find his TED talk here.
In his interview with Nieuwhof, Sinek applies his insights directly to congregational life. One that I found helpful is the distinction between “finite” and “infinite” games. Sinek got this idea from the book Finite and Infinite Games by theologian James P. Carse. A finite game has a definite beginning, a definite end, clearly defined rules, and is played to win. Think of chess, pretty much any sport, etc. An infinite game has no particular beginning, no end, and no clearly defined rules. The goal of the infinite game is to perpetuate itself. Think of “life,” for example, or “marriage,” or “parenting.” How does one “win” at life? Who decides?
The problem, Sinek argues, is that we confuse infinite games for finite ones, which leads to suffering. Current politics, for example, is played as a series of battles between political parties with winners and losers. If one approaches “marriage” as a finite game, for example, I wouldn’t think it would last long. I can’t imagine many people would want to live in a continual battle for domination with their intimate partner.
How would our consolidation work change if we viewed it as an “infinite game?” A colleague of mine uses improv theater exercises in working with congregations. Improv is a wonderful example of an infinite game. The point of improv is to keep the scene alive. The principle of improv is “Yes, and . . .” The audience or your scene partner offers a line, the improv artist accepts what’s offered and builds on it. It requires trust. The scene could completely bomb. The players risk losing their audience. Players are willing to risk and willing to trust because the point of an infinite game is the joy of playing. This simple process takes the scene into fresh, unexplored–pehaps infinite–territory. Some might call it Promised Land.
Monday I participated in two really wonderful Zoom conversations. The first was our joint First Church South Church Bible Study. The second was a New York Times Wellness conversation with Rev. angel Kyodo williams. Both conversations were wide ranging. In both conversations the theme of freedom arose repeatedly.
This is not surprising. Saturday, July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day, a day commemorating one of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, signed July 4, 1776.
The Declaration of Independence formalized a process of political separation between the English colonies of North America and the British Empire. The process was long and bloody. American colonists fought a War of Independence from 1775-1783 and then a “second war of independence” known as the War of 1812 (1812-1815). In between the colonists wrote a Constitution (1789) formalizing a new political entity they called “The United States of America.” The preamble of the Constitution begins with the famous words, “We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . .” From the beginning our experiment in freedom on this continent has attempted to hold unity and separation in tension.
But “we, the people” did not mean “all the people.” In 1789, “we, the people” meant white, land-owning men, who were the only people allowed to vote at that time. What on the surface seems like a statement of unity in fact covered over the deep severing from our own humanity that was required to make the genocide of indigenous people, the enslavement of African people, and the second class status of women and impoverished people on this continent possible. This collective wound has been 400 years in the making. It will take some time to heal.
Given this history it’s not surprising that COVID-19 has brought the tension between separation and unity, independence and freedom to the fore. Stories of people refusing to wear masks, for example, because it infringes on their “freedom” though disheartening are based on an idea that freedom is fundamentally about “separation.” This is the freedom of “no one can tell me what to do.” I find this understanding of freedom incredibly narrow–childish, even. It makes me sad that freedom as separation and division has reached such a level in America that behaviors to protect each other from a deadly virus are framed as a partisan “culture war.” What have we become?
But freedom as separation or “independence” is not the only way to understand freedom. Christian freedom, as defined by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, is freedom from the “flesh.” The “flesh” is Paul’s word for the human ego, selfish desires, human sinfulness, willful ignorance, and negative emotions such as fear, greed, anger, and hatred. Christian freedom means our lives no longer need be controlled by these powerful internal forces and we can instead freely give, freely receive, freely act out of our moral commitments all because of our relationship with Christ.
COVID has revealed that the fundamental nature of the universe is connection. COVID does distinguish Democrat and Republican, American and British, rich and poor, Black, white, or Indigenous. As long as we in America continue to demand our “personal freedom” regardless of the cost to our neighbors, our health as a nation will continue to deteriorate. Recognizing our interconnection, Rev. angel Kyodo williams suggested that this July 4 we celebrate “Interdependence Day.” I invite you to pray that we as a nation wake up to the reality that all are connected. I invite you to pray for the true freedom that is found in an open and loving heart that honors the inherent dignity of each and every one.
This Sunday marks both the seventh Sunday of the Easter Season and Memorial Day weekend. The gospel lectionary for this Sunday is John 17:1-11. Jesus has been giving his disciples an extended farewell address following what would be their last supper together. Chapter 17 contains the concluding prayer of Jesus’ farewell address.
My years learning the crafts of preaching and writing have taught me to pay special attention to endings. For example, while I may go off script while preaching the body of a sermon, I always make sure I have a carefully crafted final sentence that will bring my homiletical flights in for a landing. Of all the things one might write or say, folks tend to remember the ending.
Another rhetorical strategy for helping an audience retain information is repetition. In his concluding prayer Jesus repeats the phrase “that they may all be one.” This is the message that Jesus wants to leave his disciples–that he wants to leave us: “that they may all be one.” It also happens to be the motto of the United Church of Christ: That they may all be one.
The UCC motto “That they may all be one” caught my attention while I was a divinity school student. I had left the denomination of my upbringing and was searching for a new church home. While I didn’t know a lot about the UCC, I thought Jesus’ final prayer for his disciples, his dream for the world, was a great foundation upon which to build my faith, my vocation, my career.
Over the past 20+ years I’ve learned a few things about the prayer that they may all be one. The most important is this: on the most fundamental level of reality, the level that is beyond human comprehension, we are always already one. In other words, Jesus’ prayer is less an expression of a goal he wants us to achieve and more a description of a reality he wants us to wake up to.
Buddhists use the metaphor of waves and the ocean to explain the confusion we experience around unity and separation. Like waves each one of us is a manifestation of the movement of the great ocean. We are never at any moment not a part of the ocean. In fact, waves are the ocean. We are one with God. We are one with each other. At all times. What affects the ocean affects the waves. What affects the waves affects the ocean. It would be ridiculous for a wave to say, “I am not the ocean,” or for a wave to say to another wave, “You have nothing to do with me.” Yet, that is how we humans too often behave. We act as if an injury to one has nothing to do with us. We wallow in self-pity thinking we are bereft and alone. We become envious or annoyed with others thinking their words or behavior are somehow personally directed at us when more often than not, they are just rolling along, manifesting as one small crest on this great, ever active womb of life.