28 of us were driving up the North Carolina coast in two large vans. I was a youth minister and Habitat for Humanity was moving our youth group from one work Habitat site to another.
Our two vans stopped at a drawbridge that had been raised to let a boat through…we were in a line of probably six or seven other cars, when an elderly gentleman driving a pick-up truck somehow missed the fact that there was a line of cars stopped in front of him, and rear ended our second van at about 30 miles per hour.
I hopped out of the front van, where I was riding, and ran back to the van that had been hit and opened the door. Thanks be to God, everyone was ok. Shaken, and a bit bumped and bruised, but ok.
People from the other cars came running over, 911 was called, and police and ambulances began showing up pretty quickly.
The paramedics said that while no one appeared to have any serious injuries, everyone in the van should be checked out in the emergency room just as a precaution.
“Absolutely,” I said.
About 30 minutes after our van had been hit, we arrived at the hospital And when I walked into the Emergency entrance area with our group, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
Standing there, waiting for us, was a group of probably 10 pastors, from all over this little town. They had heard that a visiting youth group had been in a car accident, and they all dropped whatever they were doing and came straight to the hospital…just to see if they could help.
Catholic priests…Methodists… Lutherans…Presbyterians…a couple of non-denominational people…and a Baptist or two, all came running.
We connected each pastor with one of the young people who had been in that van, just so they’d have someone to sit with them as they waited to be examined. Another pastor sat in the waiting room with the rest of our group from the other van. And one of the pastors just went and sat with me as I called all those parents to let them know about the accident, and that their kids were ok.
I will never forget those pastors. I don’t even know their names, and I couldn’t pick them out of a line up. But I will never forget that they showed up. They showed up and sat, and listened, and prayed with our group. They formed a safety net…a net of support that carried us during those few hours. And more: that night when we got back to the church where we were staying, people from their churches brought food to our group, so we wouldn’t have to cook. I am still so grateful for that community that supported us.
And these pastors…they were Christians of all different types. If I’d have had a conversation with any of them, there would be a thousand different things that we’d disagree over; issues of theology, or doctrine, or belief, or social justice, or inclusion, or the very nature of God. But that day…none of that mattered. All that could have separated us was set aside, and we were united by our love of God, and those pastor’s desire to care for our kids.
And I was reminded: the things that unite people of faith are far, far stronger than the things that divide us.
Our Gospel reading today is a part of what is often called the “Priestly Prayer.” In it, Jesus is praying to God the Father. Jesus knows that his crucifixion is coming near, and he is trying to prepare his disciples for when he is gone. In this prayer Jesus asks for 3 things:
- First, he asks for God to be glorified. Glorified is a word that is often misunderstood…so we don’t use it very much. But in this context, for God to be glorified means for God’s truth…God’s love…God’s grace…to be revealed. For people to be able to see and understand the beauty of the promises of God. Jesus is asking for God to be revealed.
- Second, he asks for the disciples, and all the believers, to be unified by the Holy Spirit. To be one. A single community.
- And third, he asks for the disciples to be protected. He is asking God to watch over them.
Jesus knows that life for the disciples is going to be a trial. There will be things that will be hard. There will be things that will divide them; that will, in fact, divide entire churches. There would be people who wouldn’t understand what the disciples were going to teach. There would be people who would reject them. Life was going to be a challenge.
So Jesus prayed for unity, and for protection. Because life is not meant to be done alone. Christianity is, by definition, a community activity.
And Jesus knew that we are stronger when we are together; when we can see beyond those things that divide us, and when we are unified…connected.
If you ever have the chance to see some of the giant redwood trees in northern California, I’d really encourage you to to see them. They are breathtaking. Their giant leafy arms reach up, commonly growing 200-275 feet tall. The tallest one, in Humboldt County, California, towers 369 feet above the ground. These trees stand like sentinels of time and have done so for hundreds of years. Some were living at the time Christ walked on earth.
They’ve been through winds, earthquakes, fires and storms. Still they stand.
What is so amazing is that these giant trees, is that they actually have a very shallow root system. Yet they rarely fall. How do they keep standing even in the wildest of storms? It is because the redwood’s root systems, instead of going deep, reaches out for great distances and intertwine…interweaves with one another. The giant redwood trees literally hold each other up.
This imagery reminds us: No one can stand alone.
2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth, we too desperately need to be reminded that though we face trials…challenges; we do not stand alone. We need to be reminded that there is far more that unites us than divides us.
- In a world where politics and social issues drives wedges between families, friends, communities, churches…we need to remember.
- In a world where the primary reason people, especially young people, leave the church is because they are tired of conflict and hypocrisy, we need to remember.
- And while the level of conflict, politics and drama here at Trinity is (thankfully) really very low…we know that we have to continue to tend relationships…we too need to remember.
We need to remember that our roots need to be strong in Christ, and they need to be strong in each other. We need to reach out to each other to interweave and secure our faith. As we grow stronger together, we grow stronger in our individual faith life. As our faith grows stronger, we can reach out and connect to others and can help their faith to mature. We can form a net…a net of support.
Now, I know that we all have different thoughts and opinions. We come from different perspectives. But I still believe that the church is the one place that we can come together and be community, despite all of our differences. The church can (and should) be the big tent, that welcomes all.
As a pastor, I get to hear your stories…and I have learned what many of you believe. And one of the things that brings me the most joy is when I sit up here on a Sunday morning, and I look out and I see two people, of very different philosophies, sitting next to each other…worshipping together.
You may disagree with each other politically…you may believe different things about social issues…you maybe be a Viking fan and “they” may be a Packer fan. Whatever it is…
- The world out there may tell you that the differences are insurmountable.
- The world out there may say that you that the “other” is wrong, and because they are wrong, you cannot be in relationship with them.
- The world out there may tell you that you should reject the other.
But Jesus tells us something very different. When you are in here…in this space…we are all reminded that what unites us is much stronger than what divides us. We are together. We are connected by God’s Holy Spirit. And Jesus reminds us that this is true in here…and that we can carry this truth…out there.
When I see two people on opposite sides of a political or social issue, worshipping together, it is a beautiful thing…because I know that they are here…drawn together…because of their faith in Jesus Christ.
This is how the church is molded…fit together.
In the South American nation of Peru, there are these huge, impressive structures that had been standing for over 2,000 years. These ancient Inca structures were built of hand-hewn rocks of different shapes and sizes. Some of the rocks were cut to be 3-sided, some 4-sided, and some 7-sided. They were placed without the use of mortar, fitting together so perfectly that they have stood for two millennia, surviving storms, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
God builds the church in the same way. Each of us, regardless of our beliefs, our politics, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our family situation is a part of the whole, and we are joined together to be (as it says in Ephesians 2) “…a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”
We need to remember that we are not alone. We need to be bold in our belief that it is God’s Holy Spirit that draws us together into one. We need to interweave our roots, and we need to form a net of support, so that when the storms come and life becomes a challenge, (and it will…become a challenge) through the grace of God, we as individuals, and we as the church, will stand, will care for each other, and will grow to reflect the love of Jesus Christ. It is that love…that love that unites us…it is that love, that love that is stronger than whatever can divide us. It is that love.
Thanks be to God!