Preached on the Third Sunday after Epiphany. Edited.
I’m not a big fan of the word “unity” these days.
That may sound ridiculous. What’s wrong with unity? What’s wrong with people coming together?
That’s because, more often than not, folks who say they want unity don’t want the hard work that comes with making it a reality. We’ve seen, for example, political leaders and private citizens alike from across the country respond to the phrase “Black Lives Matter!” with “All Lives Matter! Why are you dividing people by race? We need to come together! All lives are important!” Yet we know that historically, Black lives have not mattered, so responding with “all lives matter” seeks to simply erase the trauma and historical experiences of Black people.
This kind of unity – the kind that asks marginalized voices to stop making people uncomfortable – is not true unity, because it is exclusive.
We have also seen that, after an election cycle that constantly alienated and demonized people of color, Muslims, women, immigrants, and queer and transgender people, the new presidential administration is asking for popular support. When I as a queer Latino say that I am afraid because of the many terrifying promises this president made on the campaign trail, I have been told, “Well he didn’t mean all that. Give him a fair shot.” There are people across this country that live in fear and anxiety of what the next four years of a this presidency will bring, and yet faith leaders and church officials tell us that now is the time to forgive, build bridges, and “model” civility.
When the people in power say they want unity, in reality they want an absence of dissent.
When the people in power say they want unity, in reality they want other people to stop rocking the boat.
When the people in power say, “We need to come together!” they’re really saying, “Shut up, sit down, and get with the program.”
The kind of unity they offer is not loving or compassionate, nor is it sustainable, and we as the church would be wise to see it for the platitude that it is.
Let’s reclaim the word “unity”. Let’s understand it as Jesus modeled it for us: not by silencing people, not by dismissing peoples’ pain, but by seeking out those who are marginalized and forgotten by society and bring them to the center. Jesus found those who have historically been denied a space at the table and gave them a seat. Jesus told those who have power and prestige to humble themselves. It’s this version of unity that the church has as its foundation, because it is the body of Christ. Every part of this body is needed and has worth. When we are baptized, we are born into this new body; we become part of the unity of the Kingdom of God.
Granted, the church has not always been perfect at modeling this unity. The church has often allowed- and let’s be real, still allows- earthly things like wealth, proximity to power, and prejudices to create divisions and rifts. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he sees the church in Corinth split into factions and asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul urges the Corinthians to put their petty differences aside and be of one accord. Later, because the message bears repeating, Paul reminds the church in Corinth that “ The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” Every part of this body is needed and must be treated with care, even the parts that are often viewed as unimportant.
The unity of the Body of Christ is a way of resisting our culture’s ways of isolating and fomenting prejudice among people. It is a way of rejecting the long standing false narrative that only the loudest or wealthiest people are important and deserve attention.
I have another word I want to reclaim: repentance. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was going to talk about repentance today, her eyes grew wide, like she was saying, “You’re really going to preach about that?”
In the Gospel of Matthew, we see Jesus bidding the people in Galilee to repent for the Kingdom of God would be coming soon. When we consider Jesus’ version of unity, the call to repentance is a call to remove from ourselves all the barriers we establish internally and externally in our society that keep us from true unity with our fellow human beings. When we see the ways racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious intolerance and other kinds of hatred have become embedded in our daily lives, we can repent of the ways we have enabled these systems to continue existing, and from there we can dismantle them.
One last word I want to reclaim is evangelism. This is a word that many of us in the main line church are apprehensive to use these days, for many reasons. But I think it is worth saving. We see Jesus in today’s Gospel calling a ragtag group of men by saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (By the way, “fish for people” is probably my favorite phrase in the whole Bible.) Following Jesus meant physically going where he went, but it also meant giving witness and testifying to the many acts of love and unity that Jesus performed. It meant sharing the good news with everyone they encountered.
We are also called, by virtue of our baptism, to share this good news. We are tasked with the prophetic duty of calling the people around us to remove from themselves all traces of hatred and division, and to truly come together in one Body. This takes many forms. Over 2 million people – including many people of faith, and many Christians from across denominations – attended marches this past weekend to denounce bigotry and to unite as one body to create a society that truly values all of its parts. You may not think of it this way, but I see this as sharing the Good News. People of faith who marched did so because they were motivated by their faith and not in spite of it. We’re going to have to a lot more of that over the next few years. So let’s not be afraid to evangelize.
Last week we celebrated the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On Monday night, I re-read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Dr. King was expressing his deep disappointment at the clergy of his day who condemned civil rights demonstrations in favor of false unity. He wrote, “But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” Those words remain as true today as they did back then.
The church has an opportunity before it in this present moment in time to recommit to unity, true and authentic unity that brings marginalized voices to the center and extends the love of God to all persons, instead of blessing the powerful and silencing all others. The church must repent of its present proximity to power, and we must also call our society to repentance. We are called to share the Good News by modeling what the Kingdom of God looks like. We can do this through engaging with our neighbors in protest and marches as many people of faith have done in the past few days. We can do this by organizing and volunteering for the causes we care deeply about. We can do this by committing to being compassionate, kind, and loving to those most vulnerable in spite of a society and political discourse that forgets about them or maligns them.
I want to leave you with the words of the prophet and martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who said, “The common good will not be attained by excluding people. We can’t enrich the common good of our country by driving out those we don’t care for. We have to try to bring out all that is good in each person and try to develop an atmosphere of trust, not with physical force, as though dealing with irrational beings, but with a moral force that draws out the good that is in everyone…”
In service to true, authentic unity, the unity we understand as the Kingdom of God, we must commit to prayerful, powerful resistance to false unity. May it be so.