Monday, August 27, 2012

Faith Countdown: One!

Scripture can be found here and here...

So, if you’re me, and you’re writing a sermon with the title “One,” the first thing that is going to happen is this: songs are going to go through your head. First, U2:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should

One life
With each other

One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

And then, Sondheim and Bernstein:

Make of our hands one hand
Make of our hearts one heart
Make of our vows one last vow
Only death will part us now.

Make of our lives one life
Day after day one life
Now it begins, now we start
One hand, one heart
Even death won’t part us now.

And finally, Ed Kleban and the late, great Marvin Hamlisch:

One singular sensation, every little step she takes
One thrilling combination, every move that she makes
One smile and suddenly nobody else will do
You know you'll never be lonely with you-know-who

One moment in her presence and you can forget the rest
For the girl is second best to none, son
Oooh! Sigh! Give her your attention
Do I really have to mention she's the one.

One. Love songs, songs about the struggle to love or the joy of loving, inevitably come to this. You are the only one for me. We are separate but we are one—somehow, we share one soul. And strange as it may seem, there is actually much in there that does indeed connect with the sense of “One” that we find in today’s readings.

Tradition holds that Deuteronomy conveys to us the words of Moses, and sees the whole of this book as his deathbed memoir, written or dictated on just the other side of the divide between the wilderness and the land of promise. Perhaps we can think of Deuteronomy as Moses’ love song to God… and to God’s people. And the passage we have read this morning is a particularly memorable verse of that song.

It is hard—in fact, it’s just about impossible—to overstate the importance of this verse. Author Lauren Winner writes about it from a unique perspective. Raised in a Jewish family with somewhat secular leanings, she embraced Orthodox Judaism while an undergraduate at Columbia University, and converted to Christianity in her twenties. In her book, Mudhouse Sabbath, Winner reflects on Jewish practices that still resonate within the context of her newfound faith. This is from the chapter titled, “Mezuzot/ Doorposts.”

The practice of affixing a mezuzah to one’s door finds its origin in a passage from Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words…which I am commanding you today shall be on your heart… You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

You shall write them on the doorposts of your house: In obedience to that verse, Jews purchase special tiny scrolls of parchment on which are calligraphed fifteen verses from the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy (the verses in which the command to inscribe them on your doorposts is found). The parchment is hidden inside a decorative case or tube. Both the parchment itself and the plastic or ceramic or silver or wooden case are called a mezuzah… These are the boxes you see outside the doors on Jewish homes.[i]

Winner goes on to tell of the many varieties and designs of mezuzot (that’s the plural form),  and she notes that, while it’s not unusual to see them on the doors of apartments in Manhattan, with its large Jewish community, it is a much rarer thing in Charlottesville, VA, where she grew up. She writes:

The mezuzah, which interrupts the smooth line of the doorframe and juts into your line of vision, is a proclamation. A mezuzah—like the Chanukah menorahs, which Jews are enjoined not only to light, but to set in their windows—is a real, visible, public witness, a declaration to anyone who would walk by that this is a Jewish home. The people who live here are Jewish, and they are proud of it.[ii]

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious world, it is still a somewhat startling notion to proclaim, with a little box or tube attached to the doorpost of your house, “He’s the One”—the God of Israel is the God whom we, in this household, worship, the One, alone.

How do we Christians make this proclamation, or, if you will, sing that love song: that the God of Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam, and Jesus and Mary, is the One God whom we worship? Orthodox Judaism offers its adherents many tangible, visible ways to make that proclamation, from the manner of dress to the types of foods that are eaten to the mezuzah on the doorpost. How do we Christians do it?

In the early days of the church, during the time of persecution by the Roman Empire, the sign of the fish was used to indicate Christian meeting places and to distinguish friends from enemies. The word fish in Greek is Ichthys, and the Greek letters, Iota, Chi, Theta, Ypsilon, and Sigma, form an acrostic for the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ God’s Son, Savior.” Here’s how it worked: “…when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company.”[iii] Beginning in the 1970’s the use of the sign of the fish saw resurgence among Christians, the most notable (and the most often poked fun at) being the omnipresent plastic car fish. Think of it as a kind of whimsical love song to the Savior: One moment in his presence, and you can forget the rest, for the man is second best to none, son. He’s the one!

But the problem with any symbol, whether it is a fish on the car or a little box affixed to the doorpost, is that the symbol can lose its meaning by virtue of its very omnipresence. We can become dulled to the truth behind the symbol if we see it everywhere, or even cynical about symbols if those who bear them don’t live up to the ideals the symbols seem to promise.

Paul, who wrote to the church in Galatia, offers another insight into just how we might sing a love song to our God who is “the One”: by virtue of our baptism into the life of Christ, we too are made one. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). Bringing new meanings into an old love song, the life of Christ makes of our hands one hand, and makes of our hearts one heart, and makes of our lives one life.

This is a much harder love song to sing, this is a much more challenging proclamation to make, than simply placing a symbol of our faith on the car or in the doorway or around our necks. To be one in the Spirit, one in the Lord, as the song goes… that is the mark of Christianity as it was both lived and witnessed in the earliest days of the church. And the truth of the matter is, we are not always at ease being asked to consider ourselves “one” with… well, with whomever it is that pushes our buttons, or makes our skin crawl, or simply makes us mad. People we don’t like. People we don’t get. And, especially, people we don’t know. Our one faith in our one God and God’s one son Jesus call upon us to join in that oneness, and that, my friends, has to be the very hardest thing we are asked to do in the life of faith.

We are one… with people whose features and skin are different from ours.

We are one… with people who love differently than we do.

We are one… with people whose politics are different from ours.

We are one… with people whose financial security is different from ours.

We are one… with people who think about God and Jesus differently than we do.

We are one… with people who pray differently than we pray.

One life with each other, sisters, brothers… One life but we're not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other…

We are one… and if we cannot sing this song, if we cannot live into this proclamation of the oneness of God and the oneness of life in Christ, we will be like that church that made the news this week because, and I’m quoting directly here, it closed its food bank because it attracted too many poor people.

Hear, O Union Presbyterians. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. The Lord our God, the Lord is one—one singular sensation, every little step God takes. One thrilling combination, every move that God makes. One moment in God’s presence, and we can forget the rest. And so there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus. There is no longer poor or rich, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, for God has made of our hands one hand, made of our hearts one heart, made of our lives one life. Now it begins. Now we start. One hand. One heart. One life. All of us, singing God’s love song as One. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003), 131-132.
[ii] Ibid., 137.
[iii] Elesha Coffman, “Ask the Editors,” Christianity Today, October 26, 2001.

1 comment:

  1. The theme of this sermon and how you unpack is fabulous - really a good way of talking about the texts and being relevant.