Beyond The Unity of Grief
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. john the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St Paul Minnesota
May 8, 2016
As the Purple Reign has given way to the pink and red blossoms of spring, there are few aspects of the death of the music genius Prince that have not been explored at length. Far from a local event, the loss was acknowledged worldwide. Evening cityscapes throughout the country were bathed in Prince’s color; even the Eiffel Tower turned purple.
There are times when cultural events become so pervasive and intense that people bring that sensibility with them to church and, I think, look for connections and perspective. For many, this has been one of those times and the lessons for today call us beyond a unity produced by grief to much more.
The Gospel from John is the Prayer of Jesus for the Disciples (and for all of us) in which he asks the Creator for one main thing: that a spirit of unity might prevail. Jesus remembers the Father’s love for him and asks that everyone may be drawn into that love. Unity is a comforting but problematic theme as this country seems further and further pulled apart.
It shouldn’t be that difficult; coming together. The DNA of all human beings is 99.9% identical. Not only grief but common goals and experiences can unite us—being on a winning team, building a clinic in Africa, watching the Olympics, supporting a political candidate.
So I’d like to talk about unity today, the divisions that follow so quickly in its wake, and the unique vision of Christianity for bridging difference.
Unity can play out in school spirit. I taught a couple of years at Edina High School, Edina being a wealthy suburb which at the time also happened to have amazing sports teams. So there was jealousy. There were jokes: Edina means “Every Day I Need Attention”. But a sense of humor sometimes prevailed, as in this cheer: “That’s all right/ That’s okay/ You’ll all work for us some day!”
But “one for all and all for one” can take an ugly turn and result in violence at events as innocuous as a high school or college football games or following a terrorist attack. After the Boston Marathon shootings, President Obama praised the good people of Boston: “If you want to know who we are, who America is, how we respond to evil that’s it: selflessly, compassionately, unafraid.” After 911, President Bush said: “Today, our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature, and we responded with the best of America, with the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.”
A recent article in the Atlantic explains, “In the face of a grave external threat, our leaders rush to offer the same assurance: we may have been confronted by ‘the worst of human nature,’ but Americans embody its finest virtues. Therefore:
We are the heroes; they are the cowards.
We are motivated by love, kindness and generosity; they feel nothing but hatred.
We are good; they personify evil.”
Amidst the frenzy and fear of such times, the world becomes much simpler if sharp divisions are put in place that rely on the psychological defense mechanism known as “splitting.” This is when something fairly complex is divided into two opposing parts (good/evil; heroes/cowards; us/them). and then asking us to align ourselves with one while rejecting the other.
But it’s almost never that simple. While I believe that evil fed by fear can infiltrate people so deeply, as in Nazi Germany, that it is hard to see anything else, this thinking gets extended. I have seen German exchange students at Blake suffer astounding discrimination from Jewish students including at a school event when a Jewish student addressed a German student: “You Nazi xxxxx. You killed my grandparents.”
The ways this splitting plays out today are everywhere, from views on immigrants, LGBT people, and supporters of certain political candidates. As troubling as all of these things are, Christianity is not exempt from this splitting phenomenon.
The first false division is us/them: there are Christians and everyone else. My good friend Pat is an evangelical and uses Christian as an adjective: Christian business; Christian family; Christian concert; Christian school. When she uses this term, she is referencing only one type of Christianity, based on Biblical literalism and conservative social policies. There are many configurations of Christian faith from Biblical literalism to liberal/progressive. You can’t just split it off that way and proclaim it as definitive.
This split goes further with the “only” language. Only through Jesus can a person be saved from damnation: Jesus is the “only” son of God,” you can come to the Creator only through Jesus. The rest of the world’s religions – which have inspired and sustained people for millennia – are not seem as alternate paths to God but as dead ends. This is offensive and divisive on so many levels.
What does Christianity say about unity and division? A lot.
Jesus bridges the division between human and divine. Christianity says that God is not only in relationship with the world but became part of it to teach us that love and hope must rule the day. My favorite evangelical Phillip Yancey explains that he learned about the idea of incarnation when he kept an aquarium: “To my fish, I was a deity, I was too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My best efforts to care for them only scared them…. To change their perceptions would require a form of incarnation. I would have to become a fish and ‘speak” to them in a language they could understand. “ Just as The Creator took on human form and lived a human life. Prince has a song:
“What if God was one of us?
Just a slave like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus
Trying 2 make His way home?”
The human Jesus had no time for divisions. Again and again, the Pharisees baited him with either/or questions? Is it wrong to heal people on the Sabbath? Yes or no? Should we pay taxes to Caesar? Yes, or no? Is it wrong to eat with sinners and tax collectors? Yes or no? And always he gave an answer that refused to accept the divisive premise.
This human Jesus died one of the most excruciating deaths known at the time, nailed to a Cross, in an act of solidarity with the human race, as a testament to the cost of the sinfulness of the world. Here I think that the faith may expect us to separate from our logical mind…
Jesus dies with us, not for us. This theology of a atonement is still with us, but think about it: what portrait of the Creator is painted by saying that God demanded a human sacrifice to be paid to appease him. The death of Jesus was not a debt that had to be paid to a blood-thirsty God but an act that shows us three things: the terrible consequences of human sin, that God knows what it is to suffer, and that new life, hope, resurrection lie beyond. That is why the Cross is central to Christian faith. Prince again:
Black day, stormy night
No love, no hope in sight
Don’t cry, he is coming
Don’t die without knowing the cross
Ghettos 2 the left of us
Flowers 2 the right
There’ll be bread 4 all of us
If we can just bear the cross.
When I was a child, I liked to play by myself a lot. At times, my mother would come into the room and ask: “Wouldn’t you like to have your little friend Karen over to play or Mary Elizabeth?”
“No, I’m good. Got the dolls; Got the books. Lots to do.”
My mother knew something about community and the consequences of me spending too much time alone. The prayer of Jesus in today’s lesson reflects this kind of understanding. Theologian Barbara Lundblad: “Jesus prays for those who are sitting at the table with him, like a mother who has adopted these children. They belonged to God, but God gave them to Jesus to care for, to teach, to nurture. Soon Jesus will go away and he prays for these children with the love of a motherly heart.” And we are those children, too.
The motherly heart or instinct—the intense, protective love for another person or another creature who any of us nurture is all over the first Mother’s Day proclamation issued in 1870 after this country was ripped in two by the Civil War. In part it says:“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
This is not Hallmark. This is defiance at a time when division resulted in indescribable loss. Jesus knows the price of division when he begs his Father for unity among the disciples and in the world. This is what columnist David Brooks suggests when he points out his own part in fostering division:
“I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable.”
We must do this, he says, because our country is in pain. Suicide is at record levels. Many no longer buy into the American dream because they believe it is rigged. A brutal political campaign has begun. Brooks says that we all have some responsibility, more than ever, “to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.”
We are in a time period as a country—and for some in terms of personal relationships—when we know division as we have not or a long time. And if world events feel overwhelming, we still have power. Take a moment to think about what you have ahead of you today – now consider what opportunities you might have to listen, to give, to reach out, to learn, to reconcile, to speak your truth in love… What is one good thing that will not be done unless you do it, what words of hope and healing will not be spoken unless you speak them?
We will keep faith in God and in each other, and if we can’t, if we don’t, even the doves cry. Amen.
Prince, “The Cross” song lyrics on Internet.
Joseph Burgo,“The Psychology of Unity After Tragedy, The Atlantic, April 20, 2013
Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, 1995.
David Brooks, “If Not Trump, What?” New York Times, April 29, 2016.
Prince, “When God Was One of Us,” song lyrics on Internet.