There once was a man who was stranded on a desert island for 14 years. Finally, a boat came to the island and while he was really excited about being rescued and going home, he also wanted to show his rescuers around his island. He showed them the little cabin he had built and the little store house where he’d put fruit and other food he’d collected. He showed them the interesting inventions he had made and finally he brought them to a little building he had made that had a cross on it. “And this,” he said proudly, “is my church where I come and worship God every week!” One of the rescuers said, “Wow. That’s really great. But it looks like there is another one just like it over there. What is that building?”
“Oh,” said the stranded man with a look of disgust, “that’s the church I USED to attend.”
Hmmm. It’s hard to find unity – even with oneself!
Have you ever had the experience of thinking about someone only to have them call you soon afterwards? Have you ever had the experience of feeling like someone’s spirit was present with you? Have you ever felt so connected to someone that you almost heard their thoughts on occasion? Knew what they were feeling or thinking to such a degree it felt like they were talking to you in your head? Have you ever discovered that you shared a dream with someone? How about those connections with the larger world? Have you ever had a feeling that something was wrong and then discovered that it was?
On the day my grandfather died, I woke up and thought I saw him standing at the foot of my bed, just smiling to me. I called my father, and learned that he had passed away, about 10 minutes before I “saw” him in my room. Could it have been just a weird coincidence? Of course many people would say that it was. But I know differently in my heart.
September 11, 2001 I woke up with a strong sense that something was wrong. Something was off. I felt a sense of deep foreboding. It was not my habit to do this, but I got up and turned on the news, just in time to hear what had been happening on the other side of the country.
I have a friend who seems to know, without fail, when something has upset me and inevitably calls me. The first words out of his mouth indicate that sense of connection “What’s wrong?” he will say. “Something shifted and it feels like you’re upset. What has happened?”
I know I’m not alone in these experiences. Some of you have shared similar stories with me. Or stories that are uniquely your own but show us the same, mysterious connection that we have with one another. And they just confirm what Jesus tells us in scriptures such as today’s gospel lesson.
On Trinity Sunday we celebrate and look at the mystery that God is both three and God is one. It is a deep mystery that theologians study and write about and contemplate. They find new meanings and deeper important meanings in it all the time. But still we struggle to comprehend this mystery. How is it possible that God, the one God, can also be in community with God-self? How can one God have 3 separate and unique persons who experience life differently, who relate to us differently – above us, among us, within us? It is profound, amazing, and difficult to comprehend.
What is less often looked at, though it is just as present in our scriptures is the fact that we, too, as God’s people are many and yet one. Jesus says in today’s passage from John: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” We, too, though we are each unique, though we are each individuals, though we disagree with one another about many things and have different goals, different priorities, different views on the world – even so, together we are the body of Christ. Together we are one. Jesus says that just as he and God the parent are one (again, going back to the trinity) in this same way, we too, are one.
So what does this mean, practically speaking? It means a great number of things. The first is that we need to strive for unity even when we cannot be uniform. We need to strive for unity even when we are very different in our view points. By saying that I don’t at all mean that we need to agree with each other. The diversity in our thoughts, ideas, feelings and view points adds a richness and depth to life that give it meaning. But what it means is that we should strive to work together, with one another, towards furthering God’s realm here, towards caring and loving all people and all creation.
The second thing it means is that when I hurt you, I am hurting myself. This, too, is part of the mystery of us as created beings, but that doesn’t make it any less true. When I hurt you in any way – physically, emotionally, or spiritually, the person I am damaging is myself. This is really hard, I think, to take in in any kind of real way. But if we can hang on to that, it will deeply affect our actions. When someone hurts us, we can remember that they are also hurting themselves and we can try to have some compassion for it. Additionally, it makes it much harder to strike out in revenge (which is un-Christian anyway – Jesus was really clear that when someone slaps us on the cheek, we are supposed to turn the other one, not slap back). We cannot strike out without realizing that, again, the person we are hitting is ourselves.
It also makes it imperative that we work for the good of all people – again, recognizing that when there is anyone who is hungry in the world, we all are hungry in some way. When there is anyone who is suffering in the world, we are all suffering in some way. And that doesn’t just include victims, it includes those who do the harming as well…what is broken in them that they are choosing this harm? How have we contributed to their behavior? How can we be part of healing all involved so that we, too, might be healed? It means not wishing ill for anyone because the person we are wishing ill onto is ourselves.
In one episode of Joan of Arcadia, the high school is going through an election process. The candidate whom Joan supports (because God has told her to) has been trashed by the opposition, a boy named Lars, who advertizes publicly that Joan’s candidate has a father who is in jail. Joan then discovers something potentially very damaging about Lars. And she is ready to expose him, feeling that an eye for an eye is the only way to get her candidate to win. At this point she goes in to see her mother, and through her mother's sharing of her own regrets about some of her behavior when she felt particularly self-righteous, was not thinking about the person and ended up doing damage to another human.
Because of this story, Joan chooses not to destroy Lars, not to betray him by telling the world his secrets. She gives up her chance to win the election in so doing, but she chooses it none the less. She says to her mom afterwards, “No, I didn’t do it, though it would have been so easy. But then in my head I kept seeing him, looking at me, so scared you know? Big strong Lars, scared and confused. And I’ve been there, like...like all the time. And it was like we weren’t really different people because someplace we aren’t!... Why is that so hard to remember?”
I don’t know why it’s hard to remember. But it is. We are so focused on our individuality that we forget how connected we are. We forget what Jesus says about calling us to be one as he and God are one. We forget that what we do impacts everyone in the world, that the whole way we look at life and interact with life makes a difference – not just for the person with whom we are interacting, but for ourselves and the world, too. Every interaction we have matters. Every time we are kind to someone it matters and every time we fail to be kind to someone it matters.
I want to share with you one more story. I shared this before a couple years back but I think it is an appropriate illustration.
A father told this story about his child, Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled.
“Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, “Do you think they'll let me play?” I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps. I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, “We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.” Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, “Shay, run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base.. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second!” Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball, the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home..
All were screaming, “Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay”
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, “Run to third! Shay, run to third!”
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, “Shay, run home! Run home!”
Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team. “That day”, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.”
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!”
The thing is, those kids who gave Shay that opportunity – those kids got the connection for a moment. For a moment, they remembered that we all are one. Shay’s success was their success – for BOTH teams. Shay’s success was a success for all people who have heard this story and connected with it. Shay’s success, and the kindness and caring of those other kids made a difference and makes a difference.
Jesus prayed that we all might be one. Let us work hard to honor his call to oneness as we seek unity, connection, and love for one another in every one of our actions. Amen.