Year C, Easter Seven
Once there was a father who called his three sons to him as he lay on his deathbed. He asked each to go outside, find a stick and bring it into him. They did as he asked. In turn, from oldest to youngest, he asked each son to break the stick. And each son did as his father asked. Each broke the stick he had found and broke it easily.
Then the father instructed his sons to go outside, find another stick and bring it to him. When they all returned, the father asked the eldest son to bind all three sticks tightly together with twine. The eldest son did as his father asked. The father asked his sons, starting with the youngest and perhaps strongest, to try to break the bundle of sticks. Each tried in turn but the bundle could not be broken.
The father said to his sons, “Remember this bundle of sticks after I am gone. Remember its strength as your build your families and your fortunes together. Unity is strength. Division is weakness.” (“A Bundle of Sticks”, a story found in Tanzania.)[i]
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21). In his final prayer around the last supper table in John’s gospel, Jesus asks the One who sent him to protect all who follow him, those present at the table and those who would come to believe through the testimony of those present. As a clergy person in the United Church of Christ here in the US these verses echoed in my mind and heart me above all the other verses in our readings this week.
John 17:21 , “…that they may all be one,” is the scriptural motto of the UCC. It is the founding value of our small mainline denomination that had its birth in 1957 through the union of four smaller mainline Protestant denominations. Our founding fathers and mothers saw the splintering of Christendom into so many different groups. In the age of the American cold war with the Soviet Union and the unrest of the civil rights movement they wanted to work together in the unity of God’s spirit to build a more peaceful and just world. For the last 50 plus years the UCC has held up diversity in unity. We honor all the voices we can at the table of Christ – voices of diverse race and ethnicity, voices of diverse gender and sexual orientation, and voices of diverse abilities and age. It is never easy…but we are learning that diversity does not need to be division. We can be strong in our differences as we are bound together by the Spirit of God.
Whether or not you are part of United Church of Christ, you know this to be true in your own faith community. It does not matter if it is large or small. There is strength in unity. Psalm 97 celebrates the unity of creation as it praises the Creator. God guards and protects the lives of the faithful from those with wicked intentions. And as faithful followers it is our task to trust God but not our task judge the ones we consider wicked. We can leave the task of determining who are the wicked to God. Our strength comes in our unity in faithfulness to God’s promises.
The visionary and apocalyptic words of Revelation 22 reinforce the message of Psalm 97. We are to find our place among the faithful, “those who wash their robes,” (Revelation 22:14) and let God, the Alpha and Omega, “repay according to everyone’s work” (Revelation 22:12-13). God will gather up God’s diverse and devoted followers into the God’s presence in the new city of God.
As Paul and his companions bring the gospel into Macedonia and the city of Philippi, they encounter greater and greater diversity among the people who come to listen to them preach the gospel. Of all the followers of Jesus the Christ, Paul understands the need for the message of God’s inclusive love. It has converted him from persecutor of the Christ’s disciples to a proclaimer of Christ’s message.
How easy it might have been to ignore the slave girl and her ravings! Though as one “possessed” she speaks truth in a certain way. Why is Paul so annoyed by her proclamations? Couldn’t they be seen as good advertising for his message? I think he is annoyed, not because of her message, but because the girl, with her mental illness, is bound in exploitation by her masters. They are making a great deal of money from her “fortunetelling.” The attention her ravings bring to Paul’s preaching eclipse the message of the gospel as people gather to see the show rather than hear the truth of God. Paul brings her freedom and the opportunity for unexploited personhood through the healing of God’s spirit. And in doing so he and Silas are arrested and put in jail because of the protestations of her owners.
They might have been embittered and resentful by this turn of events. Yet the two evangelists are found singing songs and testifying to God’s love at midnight while they are chained and in jail. Even when an earthquake frees them from their chains they remain in the jail in order not to dishonor and discredit their jailor. The man’s gratitude turns him toward the message they bring of God’s salvation and freedom in Jesus the Christ. Throughout this story we see Paul and Silas working to bring the unity of God’s love to a great diversity of people. Even by confronting the exploitation of the slave girl’s owners.
Working in unity despite our diversity is not a short-cut to enlightenment, peace or union with God’s Spirit. It is the journey of a lifetime. There is a Sufi tale that reveals the nature of this journey.
Once again a father is on his deathbed. He is a farmer with a well-kept farm but his is despairing the laziness of his sons. As he dies he tells them there is a great treasure of gold buried in the main field of his farm. If they dig well they will find it. He breathes his last before revealing the exact location.
After mourning their father, the sons dig up every inch of the field in search of the treasure. It is not found, but since the field is well dug they plant it with grain. The grain grows well and the harvest is good. Once again they dig the field searching for the gold. Still it is not to be found and so once again they plant the field with grain. This continues for many years and the farm prospers well. Finally the sons realize the true treasure their father left them. (A Sufi story from Tales of the Dervishes by Idris Shah.)[ii]
May we remember that the road being One in God is full of challenges and routine tasks, as well as the joy of discovery.
Blessings on your Eastertide story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted by permission only.
[i] Joseph G. Healey, ed., African Stories: For Preachers and Teachers. Nairobi, Kenya: Paulines Publications Africa, 2005, 62-63. http://www.afriprov.org/index.php/african-stories-database.html?controller=afriprovstorydb&task=display2&cid%5B0%5D=162 .
[ii] Find this story in Google Books, The Healing Heart: Families; Storytelling to Encourage Caring and Healthy Families, eds, Allison M. Cox and David H. Albert. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers. You can also find it in a blog by Trishana Millbrook on Jesus’ parable of the treasure in the field at https://mythospherejourney.wordpress.com/tag/sufi/.