By the Reverend Dr. Meg Hess
Andover Newton Theological School
Preaching on Christian Unity
Unity is affirmed both biblically and within the Christian tradition as a value to be embraced within the Christian community. We often use the word unity without clarifying what we mean by that term or checking out our shared assumptions on its form and texture.The word unity comes from the Latin unitatem meaning “oneness, sameness, agreement.” Our various efforts at achieving unity within the Christian community have taught us that unity may look good on paper, but it is difficult to achieve.Even our best attempts at cultivating unity amongst Christians fall short of being effective.When unity is achieved, it is nothing short of an act of God, who can accomplish what we long for but cannot manufacture on our own.As preachers, let us join Ezekiel, who guides us into an ever deepening meditation on God's gift of unity to the God's people, exploring its nuances and inspiring us with a hopeful vision.
Connecting With the Text
Though a sermon deadline looms on the horizon, I encourage you to dwell awhile with the scripture passage before trying to wrestle a sermon into shape.Allowing the text to marinate in the creative juices of your imagination may yield some surprises or unearth memories worth exploring as you stand at the “what did it mean, what does it mean?” axis of homiletical inquiry.
Before turning to the commentaries, I poked and prodded the text to see what kind of life was lurking just under the surface of the printed word.I wrote the passage out in longhand.I catalogued images that arose and played with them in my mind and on paper.I looked for any movement in the story, tracing the echoes of movement which still reverberated from the previous passage about the valley of dry bones.I recounted Ezekiel's story of the two sticks to anyone who would listen, and watched their faces for reactions to the feeling tone of the story.I read the passage before going to sleep and waited to find its echoes in my own dreams.In short, I ate the text, swallowed it whole, waiting for it to nourish my religious imagination and to pose the questions that would draw me in.
An elemental question that emerges in any sermon preparation process is this:”Where does your story intersect with The Story?” Locating a parallel narrative in our own life does not necessitate that we use that material in our sermon, but it might help us to get into the biblical story and look at the world through its eyes.Ezekiel is writing a narrative of hope and healing set against a backdrop of loss.A people in exile, who know only too well the revenge of unintended consequences of unresolved conflict, are invited to explore the possibility of a reversal: unity instead of division.Before we turn to the hopeful vision, we explore the problem we know so well: the presence of division and discord.Where do the consequences of division and conflict play out in your world, personally or collectively?
Grandpa Jones has been dead nearly ninety years, but lately he haunts my thoughts and dreams.I have never even seen a picture of him, but the description his daughter Carrie (my great grandmother) wrote of Grandpa Jones lives in my mind's eye.He was a large man, over six feet tall, of Welsh descent, with black hair and twinkling blue eyes. “His left eye drooped just enough to make one look at him a second time,” Carrie wrote. “I can still remember the scars on his left cheek.” My grandfather, Papa Eddie, used to tell us stories about his grandfather, William Lewis Jones.As a young boy, my grandfather was responsible for keeping an eye on Grandpa Jones as they sat together on the back row of the Hardware Baptist Church.As the preacher droned on in the stifling heat of summer, Ed watched his grandfather's hands like a hawk.Once those hands began to tremble, that was the signal for Ed to lead his grandfather out into the church yard.By the time they got outside, Grandpa Jones would be shaking all over, and as they preacher's voice rose into a shout, Billy Jones would be shouting and running toward the nearest wagon, my grandfather standing helplessly by as he watched his grandfather dive under the wagon crying “Shoot the Yankees! Shoot the Yankees!”
Grandpa Jones was wounded in the American Civil War, at the Battle of Seven Pines, a chaotic, confusing battle that sent folks from Richmond who had come out to watch the war as a form of entertainment scuttling back into the city.At the end of two days of fighting, over 13,000 men were dead.The Union Army declared victory and called it the Battle of Fair Oaks.The Confederate Army declared victory and called it the Battle of Seven Pines.No one was a victor that day, certainly not Grandpa Jones.
They said that Grandpa Jones was shell-shocked.Today we would call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.Either way, the trauma of that experience was a living reality that impacted his family, who organized their emotional life around caring for a man made fragile by a brutal war, passing that chronic anxiety along like an inheritance. The emotional fallout from that war still reverberates down through the generations in my family.The Civil War runs like tragedy in my veins.I am haunted by the ghosts of war.I read of the rise of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in soldiers returning home from conflicts throughout the world and I can't help but wonder how it will impact their great, great granddaughters.The iniquities of the parents are visited upon the children, and the children's children, even unto the third and fourth generations.
Understanding the Dance of Closeness and Distance
Can God's healing balm of unity mend the rifts that span generations? Ezekiel suggests that it can.Before we delve into his vision, let us examine the relationship dynamics of community a bit closer. It is easy for us to identify the problem of conflict and distance in relationships, and to locate its tragic extremes in our world.The other end of the relationship spectrum is unity, or oneness.These opposites of unity and discord shed light on one another.As we think about these two distinct realities, it is helpful to understand something about the dance of closeness and distance between human beings.
One of the realities that fuels human dynamics is anxiety.Anxiety is a response to a threat, real or imagined, and is a fundamental aspect of being human.The primitive reactions to anxiety are fight, flight, freeze, or herding.These reactions could be conceptualized as a continuum of closeness and distance, with herding at one end and fight or flight at the other.Human beings are always engaged in a relational dance with one another, moving toward or away each other in an effort to regulate their anxiety about being too close or too far away from each other.
When the anxiety around closeness and distance gets too high in a relationship, people often cope by engaging in conflict or by distancing themselves from each other.Conflict may look like distance, but in reality it keeps people connected with each other.When evaluating conflict in a relationship, one might consider the timing of the “fight” or conflict, and wonder how it fits into the dance of closeness and distance.Emotional cutoff is an extreme form of distance, and a short term solution to intense anxiety in a relationship.Cutoff creates more relationship problems in the long run, however, and people stuck in an emotional cutoff have a difficult time healing or moving forward.
The opposite of fight or flight is herding, or coming together for mutual protection or safety.The togetherness force can be a powerful undertow in relationships.Often, when people say they want unity in a group, what they are really saying is that they want everyone to be like them.In this view, unity has been achieved when there is no disagreement, or when everyone has been converted to the same perspective. When the anxiety level is high in a group, the “herding mechanism” often kicks in, pressuring people to go along with the group for the sake of keeping peace.In such a scenario the richness of the individual is lost, and unique perspectives are sacrificed to group-think.Ezekiel offers us a more nuanced view of unity, one that celebrates common ground and values differences.Let us return to the scripture passage to explore his understanding of unity.
The Journey from Loss to Fullness, from Problem to Solution
Ezekiel charms us with a vision of unity while cautioning us that our failures to bridge our differences can have far reaching consequences.War stands at one end of the spectrum of relational possibilities, where local, regional or national conflicts escalate until they launch into a downward spiral of death and destruction.At the other end of that spectrum stand those rare shining examples of genuine community, where people are able to remain in connection with one another in spite of their differences, and find a common place to stand together as human beings.If unity does not mean “group think” or herding, then what does it mean? The fundamental human question that emerges from our reflection on this passage is this: “How much difference can a relationship tolerate and still be a relationship?” Ezekiel and God address this question with image of the two sticks joined as one in the hand of God.
This enacted parable immediately follows Ezekiel's famous passage set in the valley of dry bones.The human wasteland of bones is vast, capturing the overwhelming cultural sadness as Ezekiel and the people of Israel stand at the mass grave of their hopes and dreams.Dispirited by the Babylonian captivity, haunted by their own internal divisions, struggling to define themselves as a people of faith in exile, Ezekiel's audience is wooed by God, who seeks to capture their imagination with an image of hope and resurrection.Before the sound of the rattling, clanking, clattering bones has even died down, before the image of gaunt skeletons pulling on their sinews and skin like a suit of clothes has faded in their mind, while still waiting for these animated skeletons to exhale, Ezekiel urgently rushes on to the next image.In case the wild display of dancing skeletons hasn't fired up their holy imagination, he serves up another captivating image.
With God whispering instructions like an off-stage prompter, Ezekiel gamely plays along with this performance art.Taking two sticks, he writes Judah on one and Joseph on the other.Then, he joins two stick ends in his hand, and like a magician performing a slight of hand, holds them so that they look like one stick.In using the word shebet for tribe, which can also mean stick, Ezekiel appeals to the deep tribal associations in the collective memories of his audience. Rather than highlight the tribal differences, of which there were many, Ezekiel appeals to their sense of unity and commonality.In the face of a national identity crisis and trials which threaten their deepest sense of self as God's people, the prophet calls them to remember their connections and shared commonality.
Dr. Gregory Mobley, professor of Old Testament at Andover Newton Theological School, notes that Ezekiel is addressing two sub-groups or constituencies among God's people, and is acknowledging the value of blending those two traditions.Rather than choosing one over the other, Ezekiel is highlighting the value of both the Northern and Southern kingdoms.Out of the Davidic kingdom in the South came the stability of the enduring institutions of temple and monarchy.But when that is combined with the Northern kingdom with its “angry, cranky, prophetic impulse,” a certain resilient national strength and identity is formulated.As Mobley says, Ezekiel is addressing “…how to have enough common ground to be a relationship community but enough diversity to be alive.” Ezekiel reminds his people of how the two kingdoms managed to come together in their differences before the Babylonian exile.God's gift of their unity is still available to them, Ezekiel insists.It is a unity that is achieved not through sacrificing their unique and valuable differences, but rather by looking to their common life as a part of the life of God.
Ezekiel offers a lively understanding of unity as being resilient enough to tolerate differences and deep enough to draw us beyond our differences into a shared life.Life in God allows us to embrace a wide array of differences because they pale in the bright light of God's uniting love.At the end of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers yet another powerful image of God's healing love.Ezekiel describes in detail the temple of God, which contains all of the things needed for a dwelling of God.It is the place where God's people are drawn together in reconciling love.Of the many details of this temple of God, the one that captures my religious imagination the most is the mention of the kitchens in the temple design.As Margaret Odell notes in her commentary on Ezekiel, the kitchens point to a community life that involves feasting and celebrating.
The image of the preparation and service of a meal to the community of God's people comes alive for me as an image of a unity that rigorously allows room for diversity. Imagine all of God's people gathered around for the holy feast.The banquet table groans under the weight of a myriad of dishes.All of the favorites and comfort foods of each tribe's local cuisines are spread out before us.We can taste the things we know and love, and also sample dishes that are new to us.The room is full of the joy of abundant feasting, and our differences suddenly become delicious in God's uniting presence.
(Meg Hess is a graduate of Meredith College and received her MDiv and DMin degrees from Andover Newton Theological School, where she is Adjunct Faculty in preaching. She is ordained by the American Baptist Churches/USA and was a pastor for over 20 years.She is a Fellow with the AAPC and on staff as a Pastoral Counselor at the Emmaus Institute in Nashua.)