Blest Be the Tie That Binds

February 5, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; John 15:1-5


As most of you know, when Tom and I came to Union Church, we immediately fell in love with it; the welcoming community, the services, sermons, music, missions; all of it. And I liked that we gathered around in a circle at the end of the service on communion Sunday to sing. But to this day, I still stumble over the words of that short four-line verse.

Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above
In some ways it reminds me of the song, “Auld Lang Syne”; a nice tune, some warm and tender words, but a little vague to me about the precise meaning.  So since it’s part of our tradition, I thought it worthwhile to spend some time reflecting on the words and what application the hymn might have for us.

 What is the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love?  Yes, we are warm and welcoming and clearly enjoy one another.  But if this fellowship . . . is like to that above there must be more to it. And what about the fellowship of kindred minds? We are a diverse religious and spiritual community and don’t all share the same political views. In what way are we kindred minds?

I believe that the metaphor in our second reading this morning sheds some light.  Jesus says, I am the vine, and my Father is the vine grower. In this analogy, we are the branches. We are kindred spirits in that we all recognize that the divine is at the core of who we are and we are all committed to the values of Jesus. The tie that binds us in fellowship, I believe is dependence on God and interdependence with one another. Being attached to the same vine is a strong, reliable tie that we can trust to support us individually and communally.

In this morning’s gospel Jesus invites us, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” It’s an invitation not just to recognize the reality, but to desire it, to consciously choose it. We are advised, the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine. And what is the fruit that we are offered through dependence on God and Interdependence with one another? It’s what we celebrated at Christmas – to be Emmanuel, God’s presence among us. The fruit is progress in advancing the reign of love, justice and peace. And I believe that we can attain success to the degree that we are rooted in the Spirit and in true fellowship with one another.

Pastor and author Tim Gombins addresses the issue of dependence and our interdependence with the wider human community in a homily in which he says that we are not ourselves without each other.  We need each other, we are an interdependent community.   Consider all those we rely on; the touches, attention, and caring of the people closest to us as well as our dependency on all those involved in providing the food that we eat, the medicines that we need, wisdom teachings, civil society, and the technologies on which we depend.( Dr. Rick Hanson)

And we need God, for we as a community, are dependent. Gombins goes on to say that the diversity of cultures, religions, languages, nationalities, etc., while opening up new possibilities for greater human understanding, interaction and solidarity, has also brought with it tensions that make some people and communities barricade themselves from others. Fear, suspicion, hatred and rejection dominate the language and experience of many throughout the globe. In an increasingly polarized world, feelings of self-sufficiency that reject the need of the other as well as the need to feel safe are often the precipitous for acts of violence, aggression and oppression. Sometimes people become destructive in their legitimate pursuits and worthwhile goals, violating the lives and rights of others. And though recent events have heightened tension and increased division in this country, the tendency to achieve one’s own objectives and protect one’s own welfare sometimes by excluding or manipulating the other is not new. It is present at all levels of human relationships.

And we know and respect that our interdependence goes beyond our connection with other humans. Here at Union Church we celebrate our inter-being with the world. In an article entitled Accept Dependence Dr. Rick Hanson suggests,

Stop breathing. Really. For a few seconds, maybe a few dozen seconds, and see how it feels.

For me, he says, this experiment is an intimate way to experience a deep truth that we live dependently, relying on 10,000 things for physical survival, happiness, and success.

For example, within half a minute of no air, most people are uncomfortable, after one minute, they’re panicking, and after five minutes, severely brain- damaged. Second by second, our lives and minds require oxygen, the plants that “exhale” it, the sun that drives photosynthesis, and even the stars blowing up billions of years ago that created the atoms of oxygen in the next breath we take.

Hanson teaches that accepting dependence brings us into harmony with the reality of life. All things, from gophers to galaxies, arise and pass away in dependence on all other things. Despite our culture’s hyper-emphasis on independence, it’s a myth. He says that hearing the voice of someone we love, eating a strawberry, or taking a breath; realizing our dependence brings us into an almost ecstatic gratitude when we see that the 10,000 vulnerabilities are actually 10,000 gifts. And in our appreciation of our interdependence with all of creation, we at Union Church recognize our responsibility to protect and promote these gifts.

Hanson then invites us to look in the other direction, and recognize how others depend on us. They’re affected by how we smile, our tone of voice, the many helpful actions we perform regularly and the words we use.  The realization of this interdependence helps us experience connection rather than isolation.  We are someone who makes a difference. An important aspect of our interconnectedness is that we are continually being shaped by and are shaping our community. And we acknowledge this in our church profile in describing ourselves as an evolving community of faith that seeks to reflect the love and compassion of God through our conduct.

At this moment in time tensions are high in our country, and beyond. Important human values, gospel values are in tension with one another, and people of good will have strong and differing views about which should win out and how to best express them.  When I am in a quandary about how to best serve this community, what leadership I’m called to provide, in addition to prayer and scripture, I seek guidance from the Union Church covenant and our church profile; what we developed together to help an Interim Pastor and a Settled Pastor know who we are and in what direction we want to grow. Though not everyone agrees with every statement in our profile, we did come to consensus about it as the most accurate description of ourselves.  Here is some of what we say:

We are Spirit-led; open to changing and improving our lives; we are flexible as a community, and embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness.

We are comfortable with complexity and are open to listening.

We are open to prophetic voices (i.e. wisdom keepers).

Both curiosity and questioning are welcome.

We show respect for, and appreciate individual differences.

Yes, we describe ourselves as apolitical and at the same time we say that we focus on making our lives and the lives of others better by thinking deeply and learning from each other; and that we willingly open our hearts and minds to God and Spirit.

We are on a personal growth journey together – both as individuals and as a church whole; we share a responsibility to each other, believing we are stronger together.

These phrases are how we think of ourselves and how promote ourselves publically.

Our Sunday worship is a time to reaffirm our togetherness, to proclaim our love and take delight in an atmosphere of peace. And the pulpit is not a place to present political positions. And yet if we go scripture for guidance we see in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles that from its earliest days Christian church leaders believed that spiritual communities were apt forums for addressing how to best protect and assist the marginalized and the disenfranchised, the sick and the stranger.  We could hide our head in the sand and pray in generalizations for peace and love in the world and avoid discomfort.  But I think that would cheapen our unity, show a lack of trust that we are truly and firmly connected by a tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.   Where better than among people who pray weekly together “Thy Will be Done” to share our concerns, our fears, our disappointments and yes, our hopes? Please let me be clear. I’m not promoting that we get into partisan politics.  Nor am I suggesting changing how we come together to worship.  I do however believe that it’s worth prayerfully considering what patterns of community life we might enact, recognizing our interdependence, with  a focus on making our individual lives, our communal life and the lives of others better; thinking deeply, learning from each other; willingly opening our hearts and minds to God and Spirit.

This past week, the Right Reverend Stephen T. Lane Episcopal Bishop of Maine wrote an open letter to the members of his diocese. He begins by saying, “The last several months have witnessed a period of upheaval and political conflict in our nation such as I have not seen since the height of the Vietnam War. Many people are angry and bitterly opposed to one another, and some are finding it hard to listen to one another and to discover common values and aspirations. We are in danger of making one another aliens and strangers in our own land.” It’s a beautiful letter and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. One suggestion that he makes is the development of opportunities for dialogues where we might gain new understandings between people who have different visions for our country’s future; conversations about important community issues, seeking to learn from each other. Not all will want to take part in such gatherings and that’s perfectly fine. There’s diversity in how we take care of ourselves, grow and help others. But there are those seeking a safe and respectful environment to process their feelings, discuss ways to help those who may be negatively impacted by policy changes and foster peace.

It’s easy to feel a sense of unity when we avoid talking about difficult subjects. But Christianity isn’t easy. And Jesus tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.  We needn’t be afraid. And in our first reading this morning we heard in Isaiah that On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples.
On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples
. In our sharing and by our listening we may not solve the problems of this country, but we will learn from each other and deepen our bonds of love and respect for each other.
Scene Two: Remember Sunday when you were growing up? Maybe a lot of your families were like mine. Sunday was a special day. Sunday dinner was a special meal. It was almost always the best meal of the week. Mom put a roast of something (chicken, pork, lamb, beef) in the oven to cook all morning. Then the family went off to church.

When we returned, the aroma of the meat that was still cooking permeated the house. And we couldn’t wait to eat! The table was set with “the good china,” the “good tablecloth, and “the” good silverware.” And the meal was delicious. For my family, at least, Sunday dinner was special, a family ritual, week after week.

Was your Sunday dinner like that? Or maybe a bit larger, with lots of uncles and aunts and cousins gathered at Grandmother’s table? In many families, at least in days gone by, the Sunday dinner ritual was an important moment in family life.

Today when we want to deepen our relationship with people, we often invite them for a meal.  Many, if not all of our celebrations include a special meal.

Jesus’ stories are filled with references to food. Jesus even chose a meal as the way he wanted to be remembered. Good table fellowship was characteristic of him; so much so that the two followers on the Emmaus Road didn’t recognize Jesus in the stranger who traveled with them until he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread. Jesus claimed his disciples for himself, established their common memory, initiated them into their fellowship, showed them who they were, and taught them their special story to a large extent over the dinner table. Jesus bonded his family of faith just like our families and friends are often bonded together, through the breaking of bread.

The Lord’s Supper means many things in this diverse community. Some believe that it is the real presence of Jesus; for others, it’s Eucharist; a solemn act of thanksgiving. Others here experience it as a memorial of Jesus’ last meal. Some understand Communion as reconciliation between God and human beings. And there are some here who refer to our service as “the Mass”, which, in Latin, means “to be sent out”.  Regardless of our religious beliefs, and the meaning we give our common experience of coming to the table, the ritual that we share is like Sunday dinner for our church. The bread and cup is our church family’s spiritual food. And I think that it’s particularly meaningful because we don’t have an agreed-upon position. We come together from different faith traditions and with various appreciations for the significance of this religious act respecting our differences and as we eat together at Christ’s table, we renew our family relationships. We commune with the God of our understanding and with each other and this makes the experience a sacred ritual. Through it we are comforted, and oh how we need the comforting, and we are nourished and strengthened for service.

So now, Jesus, our brother, our host, invites us to his table to celebrate our relationship with each other and our relationship with him, celebrating our interdependence with all of creation in a great web of life.