“For united we stand, divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We’ll be together, together, you and I”
That song probably dates me fairly well. This is the chorus from the song, “United We Stand,” sung by the group called The Brotherhood of Man. The rest of the song is a love song – one person making this profound dedication to another. Basically the message is this – no matter what, our love for each other will never fail. We will never be a house divided.
I use the title/first line of this song as the title of my sermon but I could have easily called it ‘Us vs. Them.’ It seems pretty easy for us to fall into this trap of placing dividers between ourselves and others. When we see ourselves as part of a group, movement, or belief we simply regard those who think or act differently as ‘them.’ As we see in today’s scripture, this understanding has been around for a very long time when it comes to the Christian church. One thing I teach during the confirmation class is church history. It is interesting when you trace all the divisions in the church beginning with the Catholic versus Orthodox, Catholic verses Protestant, and so on down to the different denominations. What is striking are the sometimes minute differences that serve as the final straw for division.
For Peter the division was clearly set – the line clearly drawn between the Jews and the Gentiles. In spite of the fact that the Jews of Peter’s time were also divided between those who believed in Jesus as the resurrected Messiah and those who did not believe, the divide between Jews and Gentiles remained. The law of Moses helped to maintain the Jews as a separate people. Therefore there was a seemingly insurmountable barrier between those considered a holy, separate people – the Jews, and those considered unclean – the Gentiles.
The vision Peter received was truly remarkable. Not only did it serve to change Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ inclusiveness, it promoted a sense of unity at the most basic level. Unity can be hard to obtain, particularly in the face of ingrained habits and prejudices. It can be harder to maintain in the face of difficulties and challenges.
The Summer Olympic Games are fast approaching – hopefully this will not change in the face of the political unrest in Brazil. But some of you may remember the 1980 Winter Olympics – if not, let me paint a picture. For Americans in general, 1980 was a difficult year. 52 people had been taken hostage in Iran and negotiations for their release were not going well. Economic times were difficult. We had just emerged from a decade marked by the end of the Vietnam War, where none of our veterans were honored or recognized. It seemed to be a time when there was very little for Americans to be proud of as American citizens. That was the year a group of young college students did the impossible by winning a significant hockey game against the team from the Soviet Union – a mature team of trained competitors very accustomed to winning. These American college students skated against all odds and won a significant victory for the United States, coming from behind as underdogs often have to do. And if that wasn’t enough, 2 days later they did it again, defeating Finland for the gold medal in hockey, once again coming from behind to take the game. If any of you saw that game you might recall what the announcers were saying as the clock ticked down the last seconds – “Do you believe in miracles?” That Olympic event is now commonly known as the ‘Miracle on Ice.’
Yet this ‘Miracle on Ice’ only began to become a reality when these college students stopped thinking of themselves as individual stars from each of their states, and started thinking and acting like a team – a united unit. There was a movie that came out not that long ago called “Miracle on Ice” and the coach kept asking the players, ‘whom do you play for?’ Instead of answering their individual states or colleges from where they came, they began to answer, “We play for the United States of America.” Only then did they become a united team and went on to do great things.
In the church, we often get caught up in the workings of doing church. We don’t agree on how things should operate, or what project or ministry to take on next, or how to allocate funds. Yet when we can focus on a common goal, when we can see beyond ourselves and our four walls, we begin to realize the greatness of God’s love for us all. We begin to realize just how insignificant our differences are, and how much more alike we can be as children blessed by Almighty God. We find unity at the foot of the empty cross.
Right now we as the United Methodist Church are facing a significant series of issues that are threatening to divide the church once again. After many years of healing and transformation, we became known as the United Methodist Church in 1968, joining together several fractions of Methodists and United Brethren brothers and sisters. Since that time we have seen healing taking place as we saw the damage our divisiveness had created. Strides continue to be made to mend the bonds of unity once torn apart by hatred and prejudice.
Our General Conference will meet on May 10 to begin denominational debates on a global scale. The issue facing this conference, which stands to sharply divide the church again, refers to our treatment of those within the LBGTQ community. How can we find unity against the backdrop of seemingly divisive scriptures and church history? By looking to the one who chose to tear down or leap over barriers instead of building them. When we seek out the one who called for us to love unconditionally because he first loved us, perhaps we can find our hearts and minds changed as Peter did when faced with the huge barrier between the Jews and the Gentiles.
Prejudices have existed and continue to plague our very being. It is so much easier to sit in a seat of judgment than it is to walk in the shoes of understanding. It is so much easier to ignore the hatred and hurts of others than it is to stand for justice and mercy as Jesus taught us to do. We have been hearing a lot about building walls lately, but very little about building bridges.
At annual conference not long ago I was most taken by the message delivered by Rev. Zane Holmes. He made it abundantly clear that when the Bible speaks of God’s love, it was extended for everybody. He shared a story of a time when he received a new camera for Christmas and was taking what sounded like film pictures. He came to his last picture, and he made this statement, “Ok, let’s get everybody in this last picture.” His young nephew heard this, and proceeded out the door and up and down the street to include ‘everybody.’ When Rev. Holmes explained he meant only everybody in the family, his nephew was puzzled, because according to his nephew, ‘everybody’ meant ‘everybody.’ Jesus meant this as well. ‘Everybody’ means ‘everybody.’
We may find it a lot easier to build walls – walls around our hearts, walls around out thoughts, walls around our existence. But Jesus the Good Shepherd calls us to build bridges instead of walls. I would like us to build a bridge today. There are index cards in the pews. I want you to think of something that may be creating a personal barrier for you. For me, I have to constantly put my own judgmental attitude in check. It is far too easy for me to ‘judge a book by its cover.’ At times I need an attitude adjustment What about you? Is there something that prevents you from extending the hand of love and acceptance to others? Are we afraid? Let’s give our fear to God. Are we too self-centered? Let’s give our trust to God. Are we too busy? Let’s give our calendars to God. Write whatever is on your heart, and if you feel comfortable, bring that card forward, tape it face-down on one of these bricks and help us build a bridge.
Perhaps we need to confess our inner thoughts. Perhaps we need to seek God’s guidance for ways to love God and love our neighbor. Perhaps we need to make a commitment to serve others. Perhaps someone here has never had an encounter with Jesus the risen Christ yet you are feeling Christ’s calling to service. Maybe some have never experienced unconditional grace. I encourage you to take a few minutes and spend it in prayer. The altar is open and I am more than happy to pray with you. While this song plays, I hope you will feel the presence of almighty God as we seek ways to make a difference in this lives of those in our community and beyond. Amen.