I am grateful for the opportunity to preach at the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University in observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 19, 2020.
Seattle University Land Statement:
I (we) respectfully acknowledge that our event today is taking place on Duwamish aboriginal territory. I (We) pay respect to Duwamish Elders past and present and extend that respect to their descendants and to all Indigenous people. To acknowledge this land is to recognize its longer history and our place in that history; it is to recognize these lands and waters and their significance for the peoples who lived and continue to live in this region, whose practices and spiritualities were and are tied to the land and the water, and whose lives continue to enrich and develop in relationship to the land, waters and other inhabitants today.
This week, across the world, people from various denominations and traditions are coming together for a week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I am honored to be an ecumenical partner in this observance, and am grateful for the opportunity to be here with you today.
I am a Baptist…and if there’s one thing Baptists aren’t…it’s unified. Local autonomy is one of the four Baptist freedoms, the things that make Baptists uniquely us. This means that individual churches can decide amongst their own congregation about most policies, and if they decide to associate with other like-minded or nearby churches, they can do so with consensus in their congregation. Individual churches decide to affiliate together. But for the most part, Baptists are a headstrong bunch and each church can decide what its life together looks like…then you get the American Baptists, the Southern Baptists, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Northern Baptists, the Progressive Baptists, the General Baptists, the Independent Baptists, the Alliance of Baptists…and on and on and on. You get the picture.
For progressive Baptists, like those of us who accept women and LGBTQIA people as called to ministry, sometimes it can feel like we have more in common with progressive, justice-seeking folks in other denominations than we do within our own Baptist tradition. So unity is something we are grateful to join our ecumenical siblings in contemplating.
But even though Baptists as a group haven’t figured out the whole unity thing, some among our number have shared deep wisdom on this subject.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, I am humbled to be American Baptist, the tradition in which Dr. King was himself a part, and I pray that I do justice to his legacy throughout my ministry. Rev. Dr. King saw the disunity of the world in stark reality, as his experience as a Black man growing up in the segregated Jim Crow South, offered a vastly different vision of the world than I can ever imagine. Over the years of his ministry, Dr. King preached that unity does not mean uniformity, where all people would conform to the dominant Anglo-European white culture, but that unity of purpose was possible. I share these words that Dr. King preached in a sermon entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” acknowledging the choice of gendered language and intending it expansively:
“No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution. The world in which we live is geographically one. The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood. Now it is true that the geographical oneness of this age has come into being to a large extent through modern man’s scientific ingenuity. Modern man through his scientific genius has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. And our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood. Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
Did you hear the famous lines in there? “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” In this increasingly globalized world, what affects one of us affects all of us in myriad ways. Whether the example is climate change, global manufacturing and trade, the diamond industry, international politics, social media…people around the world are connected more now than humans ever have been before. Sometimes NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard-ism) is tempting, as we place our happiness and our space and our well being above others, but we cannot deny that with all the storytelling technology we have access to, the globe is really just a large neighborhood. We must begin behaving like it. Particularly in the United States of America, this country with so much economic, political and cultural power and influence, we cannot now deny that our lifestyle comes at the expense of not only those who are marginalized in our own cities, but also those who are living on the edge around the world.
And so in this week where we are tasked with praying for Christian unity, what are we praying for? And I mean the nitty gritty details of what it means to be unified. Not the surface-level, pastel-painted unity that is sugar-coated and nice to think about. But the real work of unification, the work that calls each of us to reflect on our lives, our values, our relationships, our privileges. The work of deep conversation and negotiation, of compromise and collaboration. Unity doesn’t mean we all agree all the time, that we have the same ideas and think the same way. It means that we have the same vision as we go forward in life, a vision for the flourishing of all people. A vision for the end of violence, for wars to cease, for disease and neglect and self-harm and hatred to stop. When we are unified, we act for the good of the community, not just the good of ourselves and those like us.
There are many ways of praying, many methods for coming together in common purpose as we pursue the vision of the kin-dom of God.Perhaps we pray by folding our hands and bowing our heads. Perhaps we draw or paint or write. Perhaps we meditate and spend time in silent contemplation over a Biblical text or a poem. Perhaps we pay attention to the beauty of the created world which God called “good.”
A 4-year-old friend of mine once told me that she likes to do “eyes wide open” prayers, so she can see everyone that she is praying for. This is how I hope we pray as we pursue unity. This is the hard work of the gospel, to engage our spiritual sight and attempt to see as God sees, to love as God loves. To do this, we must open our minds, hearts and hands. We must allow ourselves to be changed by the prayer, changed by the way we see each other, changed by how we know each other as people made in God’s image. To pray for Christian unity, we must divest from the systems of privileges that divide us, that draw lines for who is our neighbor and who isn’t. And for those of us at the top of the food chain, we must utilize the privileges we have to magnify the voices that are shuttered, and to quiet the voices that are overpowering. We must take risks, as Paul did, in receiving a blessing from people he didn’t know, in being surprised by the kindness offered from an unfamiliar hand.
Dr. King reminds us that we all can be a part of this work of Christian unity, the work of living in service to all children of God: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Because when we have a heart full of grace, we can take the risk of hospitality and share that grace with others. When we have a soul generated by love, we are dipping into a wellspring of God that demands to be shared and shared and shared further.
We can provide a warm fire, we can offer food to the hungry, we can outfit people with provisions for the journey. We can see Jesus in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the prisoner, the downtrodden and outcast.
Perhaps we will make it possible that the whole world will know we are Christians by our love, and the kindness we offer will no longer be unusual and surprising, but common in our struggle for justice for all.
This week, let us pray that we have enough humility to unite with our siblings across traditions to pursue justice. That we have enough grace to give and receive feedback as those of us with various privileges continue to try to be allies. That we have enough humor to notice when God is pushing us towards kindness, even and especially when we are reluctant. That we have enough love to stay in the struggle when it gets tough, to love each other through hardship and pain and division until we can meet together in peace. Let us pray, and let us pray together, and let us pray without ceasing, for a world that reflects the goodness of our God. May it ever be so.