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Unity, Liberty, and Justice for All

Easter 7C-16, Mother’s Day

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Since 1942 children across America in every State except Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont, and Wyoming recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school. With hand over their hearts they “…pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

This secular prayer is not intended to describe the social conditions that have been achieved, but is a list of ideals we pledge to strive for as Americans. Even so, the Pledge of Allegiance is nowhere near as audacious as the prayer of Jesus in today’s Gospel.

Jesus also prays for unity; but this is no political coalition based upon tolerance or polite coexistence.  Jesus’ final prayer is for Oneness.  The unity that we are to have with each other we are also to have with Jesus and the Father.  The unity, for which Jesus prayed is that everyone—all who have ever known of him or who ever will—be embraced in deep accord, a mystical union with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Catholic contemplative monk, Bruno Barnhart calls the High Priestly Prayer, “The Prayer of Consecration of the New Temple.” Word Made Flesh becomes Flesh Made Word.  In this Ascensiontide—these final days of the Easter season between the ascension of Christ we celebrated last Thursday night in worship led by our ECT youth, until Pentecost next Sunday—Christ ascends not to a place far away beyond the clouds, but to enthronement in our heart of hearts. The living Christ who dwells deep within us opens the way to profound and abiding unity with each other and with God. Through baptism into Christ, we have become a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

This means that we are not simply one “under God” as expressed in the Pledge.  We are to be intertwined with God.  In John 17:23 Jesus prays that we be “completely” or “perfectly” one.  The Greek word used here carries the sense of bringing to fulfillment.  This means that when I have this unity in Christ “I” become complete, completely who I am meant to be as a unique and never to be duplicated individual at the precise moment that I, through faith, am ready to let my small self ego and petty desires go.

Saint Paul writes, “I live no longer not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). In the spiritual journey for which Jesus prayed, we come to the day when we know we’re not just living our own life by ourselves. We realize that Someone Else is living in us and through us, and that we are part of a much Bigger Mystery. We realize we are a single drop in a Much Bigger Ocean. We are a recipient, a conduit, a participant. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, 3/7/16)

In one ancient prayer still used in worship today Christians pray, “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” In other words, we continue to pray for the same thing Jesus prays for in today’s Gospel.  Of course, there must be ethical consequences to all this.  We cannot do good, or harm to one another without doing it to ourselves.  Moreover, we cannot do harm or good to others without affecting God. For Christians, unity, liberty, and justice for all must not only be our pledge, but our way of life.

So let’s imagine for a moment what you might be called to do if you lived in a culture that treats people like commodities, valuing them only insofar as they produce wealth. Or imagine a society that closes ranks against outsiders, concluding that foreign people with different ideas or religions are detrimental to established values and incompatible with true patriotism. Imagine a social system that regards punishment and incarceration as easy solutions, preferring the blunt weapons of shame and isolation to the constructive tools of dialogue and rehabilitation.

Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because it’s exactly what was happening to Paul and Silas in the story we read today in the Book of Acts. This wonderfully detailed narrative of the birth of the church includes: an exorcism, a mob scene, a kangaroo court, a flogging, a prison-cell, a prison-church, an act of God, an altar call, a conversion, a few baptisms—and concludes with new friends gathered around a dining table sharing good food and hospitality in the name of Jesus.

Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, Jews yes, but Roman citizens and also self-described citizens of God’s kingdom. These two missionaries were risk-takers and truth-tellers whose commitment to the gospel got them hauled into one court and jail after another. Paul’s missionary journeys could better be called Paul’s prison-tours. What mattered to them was not their own rap sheet but the people they set free. Unity, liberty and justice for all meant freedom for the slave girl, liberation for her owners, and a new way of life for the jailor and his family. Their old way of life is upended. Like Paul and Silas, each of these characters was shaken and unshackled in some way and each of them finds a new opportunity for freedom by the grace of God. (Rev. Clover Beal, Forest Hill Church, 5/16/10)

How are we called to respond to the dehumanizing consequences of human trafficking, child labor, xenophobia, mass incarceration, systematic racism, brokenness, and hatred that is part of our social and political life today? The question Paul’s jailer asked him becomes THE question for us all: What must I do to be set free? The answer might shake your insides like an earthquake. Yet we find strength and power to do this when we bind ourselves to one another in Jesus.

There is an old folktale from Tanzania about a mother who called her three children to her as she lay on her deathbed. She asked each to go outside, find a stick and bring it into her. They did as she asked. In turn, from oldest to youngest, she asked each child to break the stick. And each one did as their mother asked. Each broke the stick and found that it broke easily.

Then the mother instructed her children to go outside, find another stick and bring it to her. When they all returned, the mother asked the eldest child to bind all three sticks tightly together with twine. The eldest child did as their mother asked. The mother asked her children, starting with the youngest to try to break the bundle of sticks. Each tried in turn but the bundle could not be broken.

The mother said to her children, “Remember this bundle of sticks after I am gone. Remember its strength as you build your families and your fortunes together. Unity is strength. Division is weakness. (“A Bundle of Sticks”, a story found in Tanzania.)   Unity, liberty and justice for all must be more than a pledge. It is life.

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