That All May Be One

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, *

John 17:20-26

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

Today we celebrate multiple occasions. We are grateful to mothers for birthing or adopting, for offering love and wisdom through the challenges and joys of parenting. We are grateful for all of the various configurations of families on this Christian Family Sunday. We also celebrate our congregation as one family united in our Christian faith. Today, we have welcomed through baptism 5 new, little members not only into our congregational family but also into the wider family of the one, universal Church.

In our gospel lesson for today Jesus prayed for his followers, of both his time and of the future, that we all may be one, united in God’s love. This is the founding verse of the United Church, whose words appear on our crest. We shared a vision with many throughout the world in the early 1900s that denominations would join together. While this did happen to birth our church in 1925, along with a few other united churches around the world, most denominations were reluctant to leave their particular identities behind to amalgamate with other denominations.

Then, the Second World War happened. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore. People realized that we had to do things differently for the survival of the world. The United Nations was formed, inspiring the formation of the World Council of Churches. Once again, Christians began to take this passage from John seriously so that we all may be one. If the denominations couldn’t amalgamate, they could still unite in prayer and in efforts to work together for social justice.

Twenty years later, the United Church extended this dream to other faith traditions. Even if we believe differently, the survival of this world depends upon people across faith traditions to work together for peace and justice.

This is the big picture of unity. It is dependent upon every faith community supporting this global vision of unity. It is also dependent upon each community prioritizing unity within its walls. At the last Board meeting, our chair, Norm Snyder, talked about the importance of us all pulling together. To make wise decisions, we need to consider the wisdom and various viewpoints of everyone. But once the input has been given and the decisions have been made, we need to set aside our differences and support these decisions of our elected leaders, that we all may be one. We need to practice a mature, self-giving love that can set aside opinions that detract from the unity of the community.

I wonder if these same values can be extended to personal families? How can we consider every family member’s viewpoints, concerns and ideas? How can we make decisions as collectively as possible? What happens when family members disagree? Are estrangements inevitable? Are we able to be self-giving and set aside opinions that harm, rather than help the rest of the family?Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves might be the key to being united in our personal families and in our church family. We need to be expert tight-rope walkers with a fine sense of balance between self and neighbour. Most of us are a bit klutzier than that and we’re easily knocked off balance by life. Sometimes, we have to put our own interests and needs on hold to attend to others. If this happens, we then need to find opportunity in the near future to correct this imbalance and attend to our own needs.

But it’s not quite as simple as prioritizing time. It has a lot to do with self-image. I am very impressed with the made-in-Canada We Days. They help youth move beyond me to we as they encourage them to think beyond themselves and become involved in community service. Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, with her husband Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, recently spoke at We Days. She asked the youth, “When you are alone and nobody’s watching you, how do you treat yourself?”

How would each of us answer that question? Can we honestly say that we treat ourselves with respect and love? Or…not? If we don’t have much self to start with, it will be very hard to give any of it away. We have to be self-loving before we can be self-giving. If we don’t love ourselves, it may not be a good idea to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau talks candidly about struggling with an eating disorder. She knows how difficult and yet how important it is to foster respect and love for yourself. “You need to love who you are,” she said.

But it’s even more than self-image. This type of self-giving love that leads to unity can only be based on God’s grace. None of us are capable of this degree of consistent love on our own. It’s only by the grace of God that we can pick ourselves up from our stumbles and try once again to live fully into the love of neighbour as ourselves.

As an example, I will tell you the third part of my fire trilogy. First, a brief recap for those of you who missed the last couple of Sundays. Big fire in my block, two houses burned down, two women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, were in one of the houses and firefighters saved their lives. Nancy & I took in some evacuees and a pet hedgehog from the other houses overnight. We went to Stella’s the next morning to ask if they would donate an urn of coffee for the evacuees on our block because we had no power. Another customer heard us and yelled that we just wanted free coffee for ourselves. We yelled back that the coffee was for the evacuees, and he said, “yeah, yeah, good for you.” I then told him I felt like pouring his coffee over him. He responded, “Well, that’s a good Wolseley attitude!”

I confessed this to you last Sunday and promised that I would seek out this man and apologize to him. Well—one day last week, I arrived at Stella’s at 7:00 am when it opened and paid for his coffee. He arrived a couple of minutes earlier. I wasn’t sure if I would recognize him, but when he gave me a double take, I knew. I went up and apologized to him. He asked, “Didn’t you already do this last week?” to which I replied, “No, that was my partner. I haven’t spoken to you since then.” Well—he waved the incident away, saying not to worry, and then proceeded to talk about other things.

I was reminded of a few things in this lesson of humility. The first is to always be curious when someone says something to you that is offensive. Nancy helped me wonder what was going on for him. None of us had had much sleep and we were all a bit traumatized. Because of this, all he heard was that we wanted free coffee. Apparently he didn’t hear us say why—only later was he able to hear this and not from us. Someone else told him what we were doing. In the heat of the moment, we can’t assume that others can hear us.

The second thing that I was reminded of is that apologies cannot come with strings attached. If we apologize so that they will apologize back to us, we’re apologizing for the wrong reason and we’re not yet ready. Those of us who have spouses need to be particularly vigilant about this. My apology needed to be sincere, without condition, regardless of his response. It took me a couple of weeks to get to this point—my communal confession last Sunday probably helped. Now that it’s over, I do feel a little lighter—a little less laden with guilt. And now, if I see him on the street, I can genuinely ask him how he’s doing.

The third thing I was reminded is that there, but by the grace of God, go I. Every one of us will say or do something that hurts others. None of us are consistent in our love for our neighbours or for ourselves. That’s when we realize that we can’t go it alone. God gives us the courage to admit our failings, to apologize unconditionally, and to try again. And for some strange reason, God never gives up on us. Only through God’s grace can we keep live into Christ Jesus’ self-giving love that leads us out of discord into unity.