By Associate Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Psalm 133
Over the past few weeks at Trinity, we have been looking at a specific set of the psalms in the Old Testament, the psalms of assent, which are believed to be songs or poems that God’s people would sing or recite when they were journeying together to Jerusalem to worship God at the semi-annual festivals that were part of their tradition.
Psalm 133 is the next-to-last psalm of assent. It reads:
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! 2 It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. 3 It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” How many of us would welcome a spirit of unity among us right now? How many of us are yearning for unity and bemoaning the profound disunity that seems part and parcel of our public life today? Just last week, during our prayer time, Morris, one of our folks here at Trinity, asked for prayers for our common life together because so much is broken and divided among us. Extreme political polarization leaves most of us without any hope that our elected leaders will work together for our common good. The megaphone of social media and mass media, and its tendency to elevate loud, divisive, and deceitful voices, works actively against our ability to cultivate shared, respectful, uplifting community. We have struggled to agree on how to take care of each other in the midst of a terrible pandemic. And then there’s the spectacle of January 6, when the biggest threat to our national life was not a foreign enemy but our own citizens taking up weapons against each other. It is fair to say that disunity is perhaps the most significant cause of our collective suffering – the cause of our fear, anxiety, hopelessness, and loneliness. And disunity plays out in our lives in multiple ways. We feel alien to a significant number of people around us who hold different viewpoints. Within families, the lack of ability to understand and empathize with each other has been corrosive in ways that many families have never experienced before. Within the United Methodist Church, our upcoming denominational divide over sexuality has created uncertainty for all of us, really. It’s also a sad reality that we’re not able to stay together as the body of Christ. Something within us is broken.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” The psalm tells us that unity is possible, and that it is God’s design and desire for us to live together in unity. This should be music to our ears, people! Although this psalm is very short, only three verses, it is rich in images that give us a glimpse of the unity that God intends. First, this unity “is like precious oil poured on the head.” In Bible times, it was custom when a priest or king was being appointed, to consecrate them by pouring fragrant oil on their head. It was a mark of sacredness. And the priest being remembered here is Aaron, who was the very first priest anointed to lead God’s people. All of the people could trace their lineage back to Aaron – they all belonged to the same family, regardless of which tribe they belonged to. The people are reminded of their original and essential unity. And there wasn’t just a little bit of oil used on Aaron’s head – it was SO abundant – it ran down his beard and spilled onto his robe. Aaron was thoroughly, totally, lavishly consecrated. Anointing with oil during this period was also a regular custom of hospitality. When one entertained a visitor, one would anoint the guest with oil. There was joy and generosity in this act, and it pointed to the specialness and the sacredness of the person visiting. This is what it looks like when God’s people live together in unity. There is lavish generosity, acknowledgment of everyone’s sacredness, and recognition that we part of one big family.
The second image in the psalm is the morning dew on Mount Hermon falling down on Mount Zion. Knowing the geography of the area is important in interpreting these lines. Mount Hermon was a majestic, snow-covered mountain that stood to the north of Israel. It was so tall that it was saturated in moisture – snow, rain, and dew – and it was a water source for the surrounding regions. It fed the waters of the Jordan River. Mount Zion, down in the south, was in a much drier area. Having enough water there was an ongoing problem. So imagine how wonderful it would be if the water from Mount Hermon flowed down to Mount Zion, if the place of abundance spread its life-giving resources to the place in need. Everyone flourishes. Everyone is blessed. This is what it looks like when God’s people live together in unity.
“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” When they see each other’s sacredness, when they are generous with each other, when they extend gracious hospitality, when those who are blessed with abundance give without hesitation to those in need. When, because they are all children of God, they honor each other and live in genuine community together, as one would expect of a family.
This is a good starting point as we imagine what is necessary for us to live in unity with each other today. It’s what love looks like, isn’t it? Not the sentimental love or surface unity that I think is too often what we are fumbling for. The unity described in the psalm is specific, tangible, and demanding. And it responds in practical ways to the needs of others, day in and day out. Living in unity isn’t about the one or two things we might do in a month to be a good neighbor (not that those things aren’t good and important). Living the life of unity the psalmist describes is a blueprint for our whole lives.
And if we have questions about how this really might look, we can find further instruction in other parts of the Bible. According to the Book of Acts, the source of unity in the early Christian church was the vibrant, active love that members had for one another. They shared everything with each other. No one had fear of being in need. They were all bound together, committed to each other. How different, how much better life would be, if we recovered this deep care and commitment to each other today. Our way of largely going it alone is not God’s intention for us. We can change this, but we have to be willing to change, and we need to be clear about what this requires of us.
Yet another source of wisdom for us in discerning how to live together in unity is the monastic tradition that developed a few hundred years after the early church. In particular, St. Benedict and his sister Scholastica founded Christian communities at a time when people were suffering and desperate for a way to live together in harmony with each other and faithfulness to God. St. Benedict founded a Christian community when the Roman Empire was crumbling, and war and insecurity were rampant, and the guide he wrote about how to live in community has been followed by Christians for 1,500 years now. That’s pretty impressive! Here are some nuggets of wisdom that I find interesting about how St. Benedict created unified community:
Imagine if we cultivated and lived out these traits today? What would this look like in our individual lives? In our shared community?
As I thought about specific, tangible ways I’ve witnessed Christian love being lived out among you all at Trinity, one example that was shared with me a few weeks stood out, and I’d like to share it with all of you. I was having a conversation with Mark Longfellow, and we were catching up about life, and toward the end of our chat, Mark started talking about a man named Bradford, who he’s been grieving since he passed away this fall. I knew Mark had lost a good friend, but I didn’t know how they’d become close. Mark met Bradford through volunteering at Lafayette Transitional Housing Center. Bradford had been there for services and they’d chatted a few times. Both of them were veterans. They had a few things in common. One evening when he was out downtown, Mark met Bradford along the sidewalk, and he realized that Bradford was homeless. He asked Bradford what he was going to do that evening, and he said he’d find a bush or somewhere protected to try to sleep. And Mark thought for a moment, and told him, Bradford, you don’t need to do that. You can come home with me. We don’t know each other well, but well enough, and I have a tiny apartment, but we can make a space for you to sleep. And Mark will be the first to tell you – he didn’t have a spare room or a stocked refrigerator to offer Bradford. But what Mark had was enough, and what was more important, Mark had a spirit of compassion, and generosity, and hospitality. And Bradford stayed with Mark for a few months until he could get back on his feet.
Folks, it is within our means to live in unity with each other. The psalms tell us how. Christ showed us how. The early church gave it a valiant effort. The Benediction community gives us a blueprint for how it is possible. And you all can look to each other to see how we can strive to love each other as God has loved us. Imagine if we choose to live in Christian unity with each other? We have so many opportunities – through our day-to-day lives, through our Caring Ministry, which serves those in need in our church and our community, as we develop a new young adult outreach ministry – there are so many opportunities to live in unity with each other. I can’t wait to see, under God’s leading, what we imagine together.
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