Dear Sisters and Brothers in Jesus Christ:
I never cease to be amazed at the inexhaustibility of the biblical witness. The readings for the second Sunday in Easter were all familiar to me. But what my heart and mind focused on caught me a bit by surprise.
The inescapable message for me was on community and relatedness. And I found myself turning again and again to the Psalter reading, Psalm 133. What follows is an adaptation of a homily I was privileged to offer at the Bupyeong Korean Methodist Church and the Central Annual Conference of the Korean Methodist Church in South Korea. (More at another time about the trip to South Korea).
In 1979 a group in the U.S. called Sister Sledge released a moving and popular song entitled We Are Family. The song is about togetherness and family strength. It is about joy and support of the worthy goals of those we love. It is about the power of community.
Psalm 133 reads like this:
How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the LORD ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.
This text is about the faith community as family. It is about strength, blessing and support. Psalm 133 is one of the Songs of Ascent. These are the Psalms the Israelites would recite or sing as they would make their way to Jerusalem for Holy Days, festivals and feasts. A sense of joy and expectancy about being together again would fill the air as together they would sing in this case “How good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers (kindred) dwell together in unity.”
At first glance we might easily assume that the family referred to here is about kinship groups defined by biological relationship. If that were the only point or even the main point being made here that would not necessarily be a bad thing. But to leave the interpretation here is to cut it short. Hopefully a family defined by biology can derive some benefit from the words of the text. But the text I believe intends more. Its implications may be inclusive of our biological and adoptive family units but is not exclusive to them.
Even Jesus resisted the idea of being tied so a narrowly to his own family of origin. He understood himself to be tied not only to a specific people but ultimately to all people. He understood his root in a particular family. But he also understood his connection to an ever growing family not defined by DNA but by relationship to God and God’s purposes.
In Mark’s gospel chapter 3 Jesus finds himself in an interesting situation. His family attempts to rescue him from himself. His mother and siblings plaintively try to pull him away from trouble. Listen to the text:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters* are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
His family of origin and nurture was his family. And his family was wider than what met the eye. Like Jesus for those of us caught up in God’s movement in the world family exceeds blood ties. Family is about shared relationship in God. Family is about common purpose.
In a world filled with division and strife, where what we are not is the most important label we wear, what gift could the followers of Jesus be to the world by embodying what it means to dwell together in unity? Practicing true community may be the primary way that we can show the world the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
We do not have to ignore the things that distinguish us. But we are called to not allow them to distract us from the task of modeling the power of true oneness and community before the world. Our differences of whatever kind enrich us, they do not diminish us. Our differences can be pathways to conversation and relationship not roadblocks to community. Maya Angelou is a distinguished poet. She happens to be an American but she belongs to the world. She says about our human experience “we are more alike than unalike.”
I attended a lecture 12 or 13 years ago on the campus of Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. The lecturer was a Catholic scholar/theologian from Xavier University in Cincinnati Ohio. He has since retired from there and teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Dr. Paul Knitter’s area of scholarly and personal interest is interfaith understanding and relationship. During the presentation that I heard he made a strong case for how religion fuels much of the conflict that we see in the world. He then made the astonishing comment that has stuck with me ever since: “until the religions of the world learn how to live peaceably together, there will never be peace in the world.”
You see he believes that rather than religion healing us it often tears us apart. This is true not only in the realm of interfaith considerations but it is also true among Christians and within denominations. But this is not inevitable. It is a choice. Every day we have to choose community. Every day we have to choose peace. Every day we have to choose life and blessing.
The words of Psalm 133 are a joyous, timely and hopeful reminder of the gift of unity and fellowship that we have in God. They are a reminder of our calling to live before the world what God intends for the world. Easter sets us free to be community and family.
Yours in the Risen Christ,
Gregory V. Palmer