Variety in Unity
8-5-18 Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-16
Theme: We often think of differences as detriments, as reasons to distance ourselves from others. God has a different perspective, having created a world of great diversity for the purpose of a unique union, not of uniformity, but relationship deepened by the wider perspectives inherent in our differences. We see much more of God when we consider more than what our own sight reveals.
Most of you know that the past two weeks I’ve been gone on vacation. Vacation means many things to many people – a time to relax, to refuel, to regain a sense of the world around us, to reconnect with family and friends, to enjoy ourselves and do something that gives us rest and pause. Vacation to me means something different – a time to work harder than I normally do. Let me explain – this vacation of mine was spent on a three-day backpacking trip to Turquoise Lake, which involves hiking seven miles into remote mountainous country. You know those hiking trail rating systems that give numbers to hiking trails as to their difficulty – a rating of one is a leisurely path, a rating of 10 is called extremely difficult? This path was rated a 28. No, not really, but it felt like that to me! A lot of work to reach that lake – but very much worth it. Later on in our vacation, we took a four-day camping trip to Bowman Lake in the north-western region of Glacier National Park; we brought along our old canoe. We took that canoe on a trip for the entire length of Bowman Lake, which just happens to be 7 miles long – it took us three-and-a-half hours to paddle to the top of the lake, and three-and-a-half hours to paddle back down; if you’re one of those persons like me who automatically do math when numbers pop up, it took us seven hours to travel the entire lake. Again, a lot of work – but again, very much worth it.
What, you might ask, with these numbers in mind, did you do with the other seven days of your vacation? I’m glad you asked – I spent the other seven days working hard on a project — transforming this (slide of random lumber) into this (slide of camper). This is a teardrop camper, which used to be a very common type of camper trailer back in the 1930’s through 1960’s – but they are becoming quite popular again. I am a pastor who has found great enjoyment in such projects, but I have found, for reasons of both economic efficacy as well as a desire to see resources reused rather than thrown away, that I most enjoy working with recycled, formerly used materials – almost everything in this trailer is built from recycled lumber and materials (the Home Resource store and the Habitat for Humanity Restore see me as a good friend!). This means that my project cost me very little in money, but using recycled materials costs in another way – I had to adapt my plans to the available materials. Not all the lumber was square; not all the hinges matched; not all the dimensions were equal – there was a lot of variety in the size, shape, and condition of the resources I used. Once again, this was a lot of work – but again, considering that the camper worked for us very well when we used it to camp at Bowman Lake, it was very much worth it.
Bringing together various materials of great diversity to create a single, final unity – this is precisely the kind of thing our scripture lesson is speaking about. Of course, Paul is not speaking about previously used lumber and hardware, hinges and nails, ending up in a trailer – but he is speaking about previously experienced people and groups, filled with a variety of challenges, circumstances, opinions, perspectives, and understandings that don’t always fit together seamlessly. But they can fit together, perhaps not seamlessly, and likely with significant effort, to comprise what Paul calls the Body of Christ. Paul says that, in reference to whom God calls to comprise the Body of Christ, “some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and some teachers” – and, lest you think you are not represented in such a list, he goes on to say that God calls on the faithful to “humility and gentleness, patience and compassion, to speak the truth in love, and to help each other be built up in love.” Paul here is making it clear – the unity of the Body of Christ is absolutely dependent upon the full variety of people of faith being fully employed in its composition.
Variety in unity – it sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? But if we think about it, some of the greatest beauty, some of the most wonderous experiences, some of the strongest movements happen when variety comes together for a common purpose. Consider a beautiful tapestry or weaving, incorporating a huge variety of colored strands to form one picture of beauty. Consider the wonders of flavors that come from a master chef’s kitchen, who knows how to combine various spices and herbs to evoke amazing tastes from otherwise dull foods. Consider the strength in numbers of those of different backgrounds and realities standing together for justice and positive change.
And then, consider the church; consider our church. Our fellowship is one of amazing diversity of thought and experience; as I mentioned a few weeks ago, we have here every major political party represented in our fellowship, we have opposing viewpoints on abortion, gun control, climate change, border control, tax policy, health care provision, immigration, and capital punishment. Look around this congregation right now, and realize that, in looking upon these faces around you, there are people here who disagree with you on some major issue – you probably know some specifics here, I would bet.
Does this make you cringe? I must admit it can make me cringe sometimes, but only when I forget that our most important practice in faith is not agreement, but love. Paul makes the point that God chooses to work with varieties of gifts and abilities and perspectives in the people he created – and whom God invites to make up the Body of Christ. There is no difference great enough to erase our common heredity as God’s children; we are the ones who forget about that heredity through the norms we create, the divisions we establish, and the separations we form based on externalities such as skin color, cultural background, nationality, or political party membership. These are not parameters set by God; these are barriers to relationship created by humans. And they are barriers we can choose to break down if we consider first that which we hold in common – a God who considers us all worthy of loving, and who has made us capable of loving each other.
I will not get specific, and I ask you not to speculate, about something that did happen last year in this church which points to our general tendency in not only our church, but in our general society, today; it’s what tends to happen when facing variety or diversity of opinion or understanding. Last year, we had two people leave our church, for reasons they made clear to me. One left because he thought I was becoming too political from the pulpit. The other left because she thought I was not being political enough. This was around the same time of year. This made me sad, not so much in that they disagreed with my preaching, but that they chose to separate from us rather than agree to disagree. It is a great mistake I believe for any church to be built upon total agreement on any issue save our need for God; it is a great mistake for any church to be built upon anything less than seeking God together from our different perspectives, sharing those differences in love.
Paul makes it clear that the medium for God’s conveyance of his will, truth, spirit, and love is through the diversity of gifts, opinions, insights, and understanding of God’s people. This is what makes the Body of Christ not only unique, but sustainable as well as viable – we are a place that not only tolerates, but embraces differences. We need the variety God has built into the human race. We need the influence and understanding of other cultures, other faiths, other histories than our own, other experiences of what it means to be human. Closer to home, we need those who think opposite to us to be welcomed into our midst; we need to reach out in taking the first steps toward conversation and dialogue with those with whom we disagree; we need to seek out the variety of God’s people in authentic invitation to fellowship, to discover that which fundamentally unites us – the fact that all of us are a part of the family of God. That each of us is an essential part of Christ’s body. That we are not made whole until all can see that, differences notwithstanding, we are all related. And that we need each other as desperately as we need God.
In the September 9, 2008, , Peter W. Marty writes about an English writer, Valerie Laws, who received an Arts Council grant of 2,000 pounds for an intriguing project. Valerie’s purpose was “to create a living poem with living sheep. She spray-painted a single word onto the back of every sheep in a fairly large flock. As the sheep wander about, the words take on a new poetic form every time they come to rest. The only way to read the poetry, in case you’re wondering, is from a raised platform.”
Marty observes that this is “a pretty good image for the church.” If we are truly the sheep of God’s pasture, then we “do well to think of God as writing poetry with our lives. You can’t write a poem with one word. It takes a whole flock. Half the time, we seem a jumbled mess. Sometimes we fight over our place. Other times, some inept or uninterested hired hand steps in and allows the slightest sign of trouble to scatter the flock. But always, God is trying to figure out how to get us to this unexplainably rich poem we’re capable of being.”
God is trying to figure out how to get us to this unexplainably rich poem we’re capable of being. Each of us is a word of this poem that God desires. And each word is essential.