Diversity and Oneness in the Family of God
“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors. The People of the United Methodist Church.” We have been reflecting upon these words from an advertising campaign our denomination has run over the past four years entitled, “Igniting Ministries.” Today, we look at the promise that people will find open doors when they come to our church. What does that mean? For me, the understanding of open doors comes from one of my favorite thoughts in the campaign. “When I embrace diversity, I embrace God. When we embrace diversity, we embrace God.” As the song “Rainbow People” reminded us, we are indeed a diverse people, but not just in our looks and ethnicity, but also in our beliefs and faith statements about God, and about how we believe we are to live our Christian faith. An open door is living in our love for each other, even as we acknowledge our differences.
I loved the questions Nancy asked last week acknowledging some of our differences in her sermon on Open Minds. Does that mean a liberal must love a conservative, and a fundamentalist most love a progressive? The real challenge was does this mean a Democrat must love a Republican and vice versa? The implied answers were all, “Of course.” For in our differences we also learn that we are all alike in a special way. That each of us is created in the image of God, that each of us is a temple of God’s Spirit, each of us is a child of God loved by God, and that makes us all one. Remember the children’s sermon, when I had a heart shaped box and told the kids that in this box was something very special. And when they found out it wasn’t chocolate how disappointed they were. But, as we discovered that when they looked inside that they would see someone God loved very much, and when they opened the box there was a mirror inside. It was they who God loved, in their specialness and uniqueness as a child of God. It is when we can embrace diversity and embrace those who are different than ourselves, that we have an open mind, for we have embraced the divine, embraced the spark of God in us all.
We can see that this challenge and belief is part of the church from its inception. We can hear Paul’s words to the Galatian church, trying to show them how Jesus, the Christ, came to help people know they may be unique, but not different, at least different in whom they are in their significance to God. “There are no Jews or Greeks, slave or free, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul takes the polarities of the social groupings of his day and says, “We may have grouped people in this way, but God does not. All are welcomed into the family of God.”
In these words, I see Paul trying to move us beyond categorizing and labeling people, grouping them in ways that keep people separated and help them see their oneness as the people of God loved by God. I believe one of the reasons Paul challenges us to move beyond this is when you place people into groups, you diminish the ability to see them as the special, wonderful person they are. They become a name and not a person, so consequently we lose some of our ability to see their humanity. This is where the thoughts I shared a few weeks ago come in about our Open Hearts. Remember, I shared that I believed that Jesus’ teaching of be compassionate as God is compassionate, is descriptive of living by Open Hearts. That compassion means being able to enter into another’s life so fully and completely that we understand life from their perspective, that we feel their feelings in our guts. It means moving beyond labels, beyond outward perceptions and taking the time to truly know what life is like for another. To know their differences, yet make them a part of our lives. That is being a people of the open door.
Think about your own experiences when it comes to be moved to help another. If you hear that New Orleans is under water, you are moved to some degree. But when you watch the news and see the devastation personally, listen to interviews and hear some of the real life drama of how this person or this family has lost a home, your heart is opened, because now you have entered more personally into another’s life. And we feel compelled to act. The ministry we house and you started as a church called “Open Door.” It was started to help the poor, the hungry, the homeless and transients. All labels or groupings. My suspicion is that all of you who have worked in this ministry began to learn names and stories and these labels began to fade as you entered more fully into the lives of those who came. Your ongoing relationships helped you to experience the humanity of those you cared for.
Today is World Wide Communion Sunday. It is a day where Christian peoples from all over the world show they are one by celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together. It is a reminder that we are part of the global family of God. Jesus, himself reminds us in the passage you heard from Matthew that he has indeed broken down all barriers to being one in Christ. When someone comes to him and says, “Your mother and brothers are outside and want to see you, his reply is, “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters, but those who do the will of God.” All are one in Christ Jesus. All are one who love God with their heart soul, mind and strength and love their neighbors as they love themselves.
Nancy and I had a very profound experience of this expanded sense of the family of God, and how labels can prevent us from fully embracing others this summer. At our Annual Conference, we heard a report from a group called Humane Borders. It is a group whose hearts were open by compassion when they heard of the hundreds of people who were dying on the desert every year from thirst. Their response was, “How can we let people die when there is something we can do to prevent it.” So they began to set up water stations in the desert. To help those who were in need find the stations they raised flags on long poles so people could see the stations from a long distance away. Sadly, the person giving the report said, we do meet resistance, because some see us as helping “illegals.” A categorization or a labeling that creates a perception not of human beings trying to survive, but of some nebulas entity. And because of this, we at times find where someone has shot holes in the tanks and let the water wash upon the ground, or we find that someone has broken the pole and taken down the flag so a person would not know that life-giving water was there.
He went on to say this has nothing to do with immigration policy, but simply doing our best to make sure a person, a child of God does not die. He then went on to say that you can tell who’s crossing the desert by what you find left behind because the people are to tired and weak to carry there belongings. It use to be we mostly found the clothes of young men. Now, we are finding more and more the clothes of young women and even more sadly young children and infants. I saw a picture of an altar to those who have died on the desert was made from belongings they had found. Some of those items were things such as a child’s pair of Superman pajamas, another a teddy bear, and I cried. For my sons wore superhero pajamas. My daughters have teddy bear collections. It became personal.
There is a song entitled “It’s About Time” whose words truly speak to this. The last verse goes,
“There’s a man who is my brother, I just don’t know his name,
So Nancy and I were compelled to assist on a water run. And sure enough, at one of the stations we found that the flag pole had been broken, and we had to repair it. But we couldn’t help but wonder if someone who needed this gift of life had missed it by not even knowing it was there.
As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s Supper together, as we remember we share this gift of God’s grace and love with people, with brothers and sisters around the world, may it remind us there are no Jews or Palestinians, no Mexicans and Anglos, no Ethiopians or Chinese, no Iraqis or Koreans, but all are one in the family of God.
When we embrace diversity, we embrace God. Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors, The People of the United Methodist Church.
Sermon delived by Rev. George Cushman on October 2, 2005.
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