by Ellen Sims
text: John 17:11-21
Jesus’s prayer “that they may all be one”—that his disciples would be united as one—is sometimes termed “the other Lord’s prayer.” And it’s the United Church of Christ’s motto. Jesus prayed for this unity for them because of the union he experienced with his holy parent: “May they be one as we are one.” Christian union is both an intimate experience with God—and a cosmic reality of all that is. Unity with God and one another fuels both the mystics and social activists among us.
I’ll begin with the mystical notion of sacred union by citing Julian of Norwich, everyone’s favorite mystic, right? What? Is no one else an official card carrying member of the Julian of Norwich fan club?
Living at the time of Chaucer, she was the first woman to write a book in English. Her beautiful and hopeful theology was birthed, ironically, in the brutal times of early14th century by a woman who lived her entire adult life as an anchorite committed to a life of prayer within the confines of one room attached to a church, which she never left. Through the window of her cell she likely heard and saw evidences of brutal war and the horrific Black Plague and famine and superstition, yet Julian wrote of God’s mercy and love. Her most famous quotation is used as a simple blessing by her admirers today: “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
But I mention her now because at the core of her experience of the Holy is her understanding of “oneing” and the union that we find in God as well as the union that IS God. Of course, all the great religions point to universal union. But Lady Julian fashioned a quaint verb in Middle English to describe our union within God and with one another: “oneing.”
I share Julian’s odd term “oneing” in case it helps us hear afresh an old idea, to plumb the depths of a spiritual concept we accept without much thought. When the UCC lifts up for its motto Jesus’s “other” Lord’s Prayer — the one he prayed for his followers — the UCC is recognizing and praying for spiritual union. We say we are a united and uniting church. And in the now-but-not-yet realm of God, such a prayer acknowledges both a paradox that already exists (yes, we ARE all one in Christ) and a reality we are working toward in the coming Kin*dom of God (yes, the fullness of that union is not yet but can and will come to pass).
Julian put it this way, “By myself I am nothing at all, but in general, I AM the oneing of love. For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists. . . . The love of God creates in us such a oneing that when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person. . . .In the sight of God all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are in one person.”
Richard Rohr explains that Julian is not talking about “pantheism or mere New Age optimism.” She’s describing a profound love that is “supposed to usher in a new age—and it still can and will. Radical union is the recurring experience of the saints and mystics of all religions. Our job now is . . . to retrieve what has been re-discovered—and enjoyed, again and again—by those who desire and seek God and love.”
Our American values of individuality and independence make it hard for many of us to fully appreciate spiritual “oneing.” As a Star Trek fan, I automatically associate universal union with the terror of the Borg (not Marcus Borg the theologian but the fictional Borg collective that incorporates all individuals they conquer into a hive-mind that obliterates personhood in order to conquer more and more worlds and consolidate ultimate power.) Another frightening image of union is one that requires uniformity, like austere forms of communism that indoctrinate children to become cogs in the wheels of a political machine. Of course, capitalism has its own versions of churning out human beings that all want the same products and live life on the hamster wheel of upward mobility.
But spiritual unity doesn’t efface individuality. That would only narrow our experience of the world. Union enlarges life and possibilities and, through love, connects us in profound communion that expands rather than diminishes the parts. What is most transformative about union—which is really simply the realization that we already ARE one—is the way it allows us to love ever more deeply.
It’s just this mystifying and just this simple: when I can come to realize, if even for a brief moment, that my life is bound up with yours . . . if I can truly recognize that our fates are inextricably united and that what happens to you affects me . . . that your loss diminishes me and your joy enhances mine . . . if I become so tuned to the reality of our connection and that our fates are bound together . . . then I sincerely want goodness for you as much as I want it for myself. And if that happens—and it does sometimes, briefly and sporadically—then I will behave toward you in ways that support your flourishing. And if I can empathize with and care about not just you in that way, but if I can realize and extend empathy to people I don’t know, then I can even fathom that the future of earth’s creatures and all life on this planet and beyond affect my life and vice versa. If I can truly appreciate the interconnectedness of life and imagine this web we’re in that reverberates with the slightest touch by the smallest creature . . . then I will act compassionately toward others. I will behave in saving ways. I will do what furthers God’s now and coming Kin*dom that Jesus preached. I will be an instrument of salvation. Through the unifying love of Jesus.
And within that kind of spirituality I may engage in movements, led by the Spirit of Love, that connect and unite people—unifying movements like the current Poor People’s Campaign which I’m supporting.
Now some folks think God works one-on-one with people, that God speaks to you personally over coffee in a private little tete-a- tete. And that does happen. God spoke to Samuel while the child lay in bed and not even priest Eli overheard. God spoke to Mary through the appearance of an angel — just that young girl and the heavenly messenger. God spoke to the prophets such strange words that Jonah and Jeremiah and Amos WISHED there’d been other witnesses to these disturbing words so they would not be blamed for the stern announcements they had to pass along. Yes, God worked powerfully in the lives of individuals.
But most of the time God works through groups and movements and the roiling currents of historical events that roll down like justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. was surely a modern-day prophet of God. But the Spirit of God that King acknowledged prompted a man as well as an entire movement.
Fifty years later, exactly fifty years after the Poor People’s March that George spoke of earlier, the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis have for many months been summoning justice-seekers for these days. They have been prophetically naming the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation. They have, like ancient prophets, named systemic injustices and called upon people like you and me to recognize how distorted is our nation’s morality and then to UNITE across the country to expose the injustice. It’s in the UNITING together that justice can happen. Because ecological devastation, for example, will not be corrected by a small group of individuals recycling newspapers and wine bottles. We must also coordinate and consolidate efforts for sweeping changes in how we use natural resources and how we create carbon neutral sources of energy and how we withdraw fewer of the finite natural resources on this planet and how we reject processes that heat up this planet.Individuals can’t make these corrections on the scale necessary—unless they are part of a concerted move-ment. Any such movement that produces a healthier planet is led by the Spirit of God, that energy of creativity and life.
You may have noticed that when the word “world” appeared in our gospel reading today, I inserted the word “system” next to it to show that an equally acceptable translation for the Greek kosmos is SYSTEM. We become enmeshed in the world’s SYSTEMS (political, economic, militaristic). Only a unified, concerted response can free us.
You can tell if a movement is of God when it moves us toward greater union with all of life. You can tell if God’s love, rather than egoism or coercion or fear is heading up the change because the movement for change is led by folks on the margins and the smallest voices get amplified and the usual leaders either simply don’t show up or recognize their job is to listen to fresh voices, especially to the voices of the poor.
Each state of the 39 states participating in the 40 days of Poor People’s campaign that starts this week will be sending two people to D.C. to represent their state. AL’s PPC is flying to Washington a man and a woman who are homeless. Because their voices need to be heard. Meanwhile, among the Mobile delegates heading to Montgomery tomorrow morning are a man and a woman who have volunteered to be arrested at the rally at the capital during an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The two who will likely be arrested are among the privileged who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs or not finding future jobs because of an arrest record. Mobile’s two individuals who will probably go to jail tomorrow (briefly, we hope) are clergy: Rev. Tonny Algood who directs the United Methodist Inner City Mission — and I. Our privilege as white, middle class, aging clergy may protect us more than some.
This upending of expectations and privilege is a sign, to me, that the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the PPC. What a joy it’s been these last weeks as we’ve met for training and preparations to work alongside wise and dedicated souls we might not otherwise have known. You want to see where God is at work in this world? Go to the margins. Show up at a transgender forum, like the one Terri organized and Marionna helped lead and others of us attended yesterday. God moves among us when least expected. God stirs up movements through us. The Spirit of God nudges individuals and galvanizes movements and when we “feel the spirit” we act in union with it and one another.
PRAYER: Unite our heart, Spirit of Love. Let us not only believe Julian of Norwich’s blessing but let us work for her words: “that all shall be well, and all (each and everyone) shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”