I Corinthians 12:4-13, 26-27
Over the past few years, Pastor Pam and I have used the term ubuntu to describe the nature of Christian community. “I am because of you. You are because of me. We are because of one another.” The Southern Africans that coined and popularized the word “ubuntu,” including Archbishop Desmond Tutu knew that community, connectedness is essential for survival. During the scourge of Apartheid, ubuntu, community, unity, was the only way to endure injustice, and have the courage to protest the apparently invincible Afrikaner regime. Connection was essential as women sought the right to vote and equal rights in the United States. Unity was essential in the freedom marches of the Civil Rights movement.
Today, we need to go beyond separation, isolation, individualism, and incivility if we are to survive as a nation and as a planet. We are diverse in so many ways and we need to acknowledge our diversity and honor the unique gifts of gender, sexual orientation, culture, religion, and ethnicity. But we also need equally to stress our unity, or interdependence, whether with the environment, congregational life, and the larger communities of which we are a part. We have different gifts, but we can be one in the spirit.
Looking toward the way of the Cross, Jesus describes our relationship with him in terms of vines and branches. “I am the vine and you are the branches. Connected to me you will bear much fruit. Disconnected you will wither and die.” There is a spiritual energy that flows through us. The energy of love, the energy that created the universe, the energy that binds us in community bringing wholeness to body, mind, and spirit, and the many members of our community. Yet, this holy wisdom, this divine energy, touches each of us in different ways. We are gifted by this lively, loving, healing, connecting energy of love. That’s what it means to be church. To see each of us as holy, gifted, and necessary to each other. That’s the point of I Corinthians 12 – we have different gifts, yet one spirit gives life to all.
Think of the gifts of our congregation, individually and as a group – think of how each of us matters from the youngest child to the oldest adult. Think of how we really can’t get along without each other – the folks interested in health, in finance, in brick and mortar, in greeting people at the Niche, in bringing casseroles and non-perishable goods to the food insecure and unsheltered, to the recyclers, the ones who manage by walking around and noticing what needs to be repaired, the ones who monitor building repairs, the singers and bell ringers, the landscapers, the ones who write cards and make phone calls, and who are there when you need a hand or a comforting voice. And so much more. Ubuntu, we are because of each other.
There are also challenging words in John 15 – those disconnected branches will be cut off and burned. I don’t think Jesus is talking about punishment or damnation, but the cost of disconnection and the need to constantly care for our community and its wellbeing. To go beyond self-interest – go beyond “my way or the highway,” or the need to right or in control – to look for the greater good of the community. I think Jesus is talking about pruning what’s not essential, what gets in the way of healthy community.
When I was a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, I was also the interim pastor at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ in Cavetown, Maryland, just outside Hagerstown, and about 60 miles from our nation’s capitol. I made it a point to visit members, and one day I visited an orcharder, Nevin Lewis, now resting with the saints. He was pruning his apple trees, and I asked him, “what is the primary purpose of pruning?” He smiled and winked at me as if I should know, but sometimes the pastor is the dumbest one in the room or orchard– and replied, “Don’t you know, Pastor, it’s to let the light in!”
That’s what Jesus is talking about. In community and in our personal lives, we need to prune what gets in the way of nurturing healthy community and faithful persons. We need to reflect on our impact on others and our values in relationship to our church and the nation and let go of any habits and behaviors that keep us from living out our gifts and nurturing the gifts of others.
As I’ve said for eight years, there are many right answers to the questions we have in moving forward as a church, and it’s not just about the pastors, it’s about all of us – even in times of change and loss – working together to do what is best to live out our mission, one in the spirit, joined in diversity, nurturing each other’s gifts.
I grew up in a small town in the Salinas Valley, California, and my father Everett Lewis Epperly was the pastor of the American Baptist Church in town. I remember that first Sunday of the month, when we had communion. It was crackers and grape juice. And it was a needed respite for a young child…a sip and a taste. But, even as a child, I knew that communion was much more than that – as farmers and hired hands, school teachers and stay at home moms, grocery clerks and police officers, dentists and doctors, children and Sunday school teachers, passed the plates down the rows. We were more than just individuals, we were God’s people, fallible and sometimes ornery, but deeply caring, sharing our joys and sorrows.
And then as the communion ended, my Dad always said, quoting scripture, “and when they sang a hymn, they went out,” and we sang “Blest be the tie that binds….” And that is our calling to affirm that we are one in all our quirkiness, wonder, beauty, and pain, our trouble and our joy. And as we sing it, I know that we are joined with the communion of saints – I know that my Dad is there, and mom and my brother troubled by mental illness; I know that Millie White, Pearl Perry, Edythe Gingerich, Gabe and Dot Fackre, Mark Elliot, the Colellas, some of your husbands and wives are here…singing with us the song of the ages, that joins our hearts in in God’s everlasting love, and the great journey of our church.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts, and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.