Sermon, October 2, 2016

Unity in Diversity: Appreciating Our Differences
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
October 2, 2016
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday
Isaiah 25:6-9; I Corinthians 12:12-27; John 17:20-23

We live in a society that is painfully divided along many lines, rich from poor, right from left, white from black. We are sitting in a church that has at times been tragically divided over practices, policies or personalities. We humans have a deep longing for oneness, for beloved community, and yet history tells of the never-ending struggle between the force that draws us together and the force that divides us, what our religious tradition has called God versus the devil.

The struggle is as old as the human race, but the urgency to find a way to live together has never been greater than now. The church, our society, the whole earth is endangered by our divisions. The good news is that we have the accumulated wisdom of the ages to help us, we have the living force of the Holy Spirit eager to guide and empower us, and we have many practical tools and skills to create unity in diversity that have evolved in just the past few decades. Every time we overcome what divides us as individuals, every time we practice the techniques needed for healthy communication as a congregation, we are doing something significant to save the world and fulfill the eternal vision of how God means for life to be.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah spoke to a divided nation and world, saying, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…”

Prophetic voices sang out among the divided and oppressed peoples of Central America in the 1980s, almost three thousand years after Isaiah. We heard some of their words as our Introit: “This is bread that God provides us, nourishing our unity…. Christ is ever present with us to unite us all in love. Joyfully we come together at the holy feast of God.”

In between those ancient and modern prophetic visions of unity, we have the words that Jesus prayed, “that they may all be one…. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

We have Paul’s words, as well, saying, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit…. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Paul talked about how the ear and eye and different parts of the body need to treat one another with honor and respect, not just tolerating differences but appreciating them, seeing how we depend on and are strengthened by our differences, and celebrating them.

That wisdom is absolutely essential to our life together. It is also easier to say than to do. This week I was part of two gatherings here that talked about our struggle to appreciate our differences. The first was the film discussion the Diaconate hosted on Thursday evening about sexual orientation and gender identity in the context of the church and our families and society.

People said after the film that they hoped that anyone would be able to feel that “no matter who they are or where they are on their journey, they are welcome here,” as our bulletin says. Yet some spoke up who have experienced this congregation as not being welcoming and loving. We have work to do still to make sure that every single person who comes through these doors receives the unconditional, extravagant care and support that Christ calls us to have for one another, especially for the stranger and the person in need. We need to be even more enthusiastic and all-inclusive than we already are in our welcome after worship every Sunday.

We also talked about how someone who feels like an outsider might wonder if the love they see us having for one another will extend to them. If the congregation is all white, how will people who are not white know that the difference of race that divides so many in our society will not hold us back from fully embracing them? If the congregation appears to be all heterosexual, how will people who are not heterosexual know that the rejection common in other churches will not hold us back from extending our affirmation and loving care to them?

We all naturally want our church home to be a place where we feel safe, where we know we will be not just tolerated but appreciated, affirmed and celebrated as the person we truly are. We need this to be real.

I want to be clear that I am not taking the position that this congregation must be a place where all differences of race or sexual orientation or gender identity are appreciated and affirmed—that is up to the congregation to consider and decide. The important thing is that we be intentional and clear about our attitude, so that people among us who feel different from the majority know where they stand. My job is not to take a position, but to support everyone here as you go through a process of considering this.

One person at the film talked about a friendship that she formed years ago on a camping trip with a Chinese couple who immigrated to the United States. They live in a large settlement of Chinese immigrants who maintain many of their cultural ways. The friendship has continued in part because both sides are fascinated by how different they are from one another. They love to learn about the various Chinese and American ways of doing things. They appreciate and enjoy the diversity.

Imagine if we met all differences with that kind of curiosity instead of suspicion or fear or harsh judgment. Imagine if our approach to every person here was to engage, explore and discover the way God is present in them and how life has shaped them to be who and what they are. Think of how much fun it would be to greet someone new or even someone we have known for decades if our goal was always to appreciate them deeply and support and celebrate them fully. Every encounter here is an opportunity to do that, and the wider we open our embrace the more joy we can experience.

This issue came up at another gathering, a much smaller one, on Friday evening, when I met with Patrick and Caleb Peters. Caleb has been working to get another Cub Scout badge for religious studies. The curriculum on Friday talked about how God has given every person different gifts.

It asked the questions, “What would it be like if everybody were the same? How does variety add excitement to life?” Those were easy for Caleb to answer. Then it asked the zinger, “How does variety add frustration to life?” That question requires that we be painfully honest.

The film the Deacons showed about sexual orientation offered a good example. A man talked about the frustration he had felt when he was young and met blind people and wanted to shake their hands. He had no idea what to do. He found himself feeling afraid at first, and then, he confessed, he became annoyed at them for being different.

Finally he was sitting next to a blind person at a conference and he got up the courage to ask what to do when he wanted to shake his hand. The blind man thanked him. He said if more people would just be curious and ask such questions, blind people would feel less awkward and isolated. He said just tell me you would like to shake my hand—simple as that. From then on the man in the film said he was excited to come upon a blind person because it felt so good to know how to relate.

A colleague of mine used to say with a twinkle in his eye, “God must love diversity, otherwise why would she make us all so different?” We hear over and over in the scriptures and hymns that God loves us all. God wants us to overcome what divides us and be one with God and one another.

It is exciting and deeply moving to me to watch this congregation grapple with what that means, and seek new ways of relating that fulfill God’s dream, joining differences together to form one beloved community. You are bringing joy to God’s heart! I hope you will keep attending the events here that are designed to help, and I hope you will keep practicing finding unity in diversity and appreciating the differences around you. I hope you will feel and savor that love and that joy.

Let us reflect on this in silence…