Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
Week of: August 16, 2020
Scripture: Psalm 133
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
(Psalm 133:1, NRSV)
When David wrote Psalm 133, the occasion might have been his coronation, when all Israel came together at Hebron after years of bloodshed and its elders anointed him as king. Many translations of this psalm begin with the exhortation "Behold," commanding us to take notice. Historically, Jewish pilgrims from all walks of life have sung this psalm when traveling to worship God at the high feasts in Jerusalem, and today it circulates as the popular Hine Ma Tov. Unity, the psalm tells us, is both good and pleasant – for not everything that is one is also the other. Its beneficial effects are as fragrant as oil and refreshing as dew.
We often confuse unity with homogeneity. One consequence of this is that the more we converse exclusively within like-minded groups, the more extreme our perspectives tend to become. Then we wonder why so much of contemporary socio-political discourse is incendiary, tribalistic, and ultimately wearying. Our shared identity as salt and light of the world must be grounded in common purpose to fulfill the Great Commission and not what Brené Brown calls "common-enemy intimacy" against an "other," however defined. The apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 12 that as members within the body of Christ, we are not to disparage ourselves or one another: the eye cannot say to the hand or foot, "I have no need of you," nor the ear say, "I do not belong because I am not an eye." Imagine a pipe organ where the reed stops say to the flutes, "We have no need of you" or the strings say, "Because we are not couplers, we do not belong."
The art of orchestration may serve as a helpful metaphor for striving toward unity, whether as expressed in stop combinations on the organ, sound banks in a synthesizer, or players within a band or orchestra. Diverse elements need not be antagonists but rather complements to one another under skillful handling. We may extend the principle of harmonious blend into musical styles: under a "traditional" banner, service music may legitimately draw from a plurality of Christian worship traditions across the centuries including Jewish cantillation, Gregorian chant, Lutheran hymnody, shape-note singing, camp meeting revival, Spirituals and Black gospel, folk traditions from every nation, and multiple generations of praise and worship music – as long as these elements have as their purpose the augmenting of the message of the Word. One positive consequence of quarantine-impacted worship has been a sharing and cross-pollination of sermons and music offerings between churches across many communities which would otherwise have remained siloed.
The lesson of fraternal unity was not absorbed by David's sons. Indeed, unity is difficult to achieve and harder to maintain as it requires proactively sustained intention among a significant majority. It also requires no small degree of humility, for unity does not begin with us but with the One we serve who redeemed us. Its benefits, however, are beautiful and desirable to God, to us, and to our neighbors. In the words of H. Richard Niebuhr: "The road to unity is the road to repentance. It demands resolute turning away from all those loyalties to the lesser values of the self, the denomination, and the nation, which deny the inclusiveness of divine love."
Almighty God, we turn to you and recognize that true unity can begin only with you. Renew our common purpose as we seek to follow the person and teaching of your Son Jesus Christ, in whose strong name we pray. Amen.
Dr. John Orfe
First United Methodist Church
Photo: Nathaniel Gumbs plays the organ at Waynesville First UMC during Music & Worship Arts Week 2019. (Fellowship photo by Daniel Craig.)