The Power of One

June 2, 2016 — Rev. Paula Norbert

John 17:20-26

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word,  that they may all be one.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

These words in John’s Gospel reading today are a passage which includes Jesus’ final prayer before he makes his way to the Garden of Gethsemane and the days which will unfold after that evening.  We know that on this last night with his disciples, Jesus shares a meal with them, washes their feet and gives them a new commandment.  He answers their many questions about his leaving them.  And after that, Jesus begins to pray.  In the writings from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we hear that Jesus prays before his arrest when he is in Gethsemane, and he prays alone.  His most trusted disciples are some distance from him, and rather than listening, praying, or keeping watch, they fall asleep.  In John, the events are different. Jesus and the disciples have not yet traveled to the garden and when Jesus prays, the disciples are nearby. Throughout the earlier part of the evening Jesus had given them as much information as he could about what was about to happen and how he would provide for them in the future. Then Jesus begins to pray for them.  Jesus was praying not only for the people seated around him at the table that evening but also for those who would follow his teachings in the future, which thanks to God, includes us. His prayer is one that focuses on unity, on all being one.  Let us pray, Gracious God, may we continue to find ways that we may be connected to one another, despite differences which may arise.  May we find ways to build bridges, to forge connections, and to create unity wherever we can.  Amen.

We can probably guess that as the disciples gathered for what would be their last meal with Jesus (although they did not know it at the time) they did not feel unified. They were probably afraid, uncertain, insecure, and maybe had disagreements among themselves.  We know that their relationships were like those found among friends, in families and certainly in many churches.  It’s a wonderful thing when people feel a sense of unity, of common purpose with one another, but it’s not always the case.

When we listen again to Jesus’ prayer today, we hear his hope, his vision, and his picture of what we, his followers, are to look like and how we are to live our lives together. It’s clear that his words are meant for everyone — then and now – as he prays for “those who will believe in me” (17:20) through the words of the disciples.

It’s really  a prayer for community. Jesus prays that, “all may be one.” To be a follower of Jesus is to be a part of a greater whole.  According to Jesus, there are to be no solitary Christians or spiritual “Lone Rangers.”  Within that community the prayer is for unity: “that all may be one.” Does it mean we all have to get along all the time? Does that mean we all have to agree all the time?  I would imagine not, but the sense of unity should be a vision we strive for.

Jesus’ prayer reminds us that our unity, our “oneness” is to be a sign to the world of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Oneness and unity is about love. And if you have been a part of a family, a member of a church, or a community, you know that within that love there can be disagreements and squabbling. We are human. But the mystery of the incarnation is that God desired unity with us so much that God became one of us. And in that moment we were drawn into the oneness of God, the Creator/Father/Mother, the Son, and the Spirit. It is with God’s help that we can live into that oneness. (Rev. Lucy Hogan)

We know that the creative ideas of one individual have been able to inspire a larger movement of good in the world.  There are countless examples of someone providing leadership on a project that was propelled by their deep passion and vision.  At the same time, these amazing projects almost always involve the energy and enthusiasm of many others to help bring them to reality. That is the power of One, one individual and a community that becomes one through their shared vision and work.    I’d like to share just a few stories of these amazing initiatives…

Ron Finley was fed up with the unhealthy food choices in his community. South Los Angeles is home to nearly 1,000 fast food restaurants. One in seven residents has diabetes and one in three children is obese — statistics that are twice the rate of wealthier neighboring communities. But, in the shadow of the Metro train station, there lies an oasis in the concrete jungle — it’s a place where healthy food is grown and given away free on Exposition Boulevard.

This is the Urban Garden which was planted by Ron Finley. Over ten years ago Finley grew tired of driving to other neighborhoods to buy healthy food. He decided to grow his own on the strip of land between the curb and the sidewalk in front of his house. The city of Los Angeles said it was an illegal use of public space and issued an arrest warrant.

Finley said he couldn’t believe the uproar his garden caused.  As you might imagine, this did little to dissuade Finley’s green thumb. He fought to change the law. He won his battle against the city of LA and now, he helps plant urban gardens all over South LA.  “I don’t want to live in a food prison. I want to live in a food forest,” Finley said and he encourages neighbors to come and plant their own food, and he shares what he’s grown.  Finley’s garden has become a living classroom for children in nearby neighborhoods. They enjoy digging in the dirt, chasing butterflies and being dazzled by hummingbirds.   He presented a Ted Talk in 2013 which garnered more than 2 million views on the Internet, inspiring people around the globe to plant their own urban gardens. He is sparking a revolution one seed at a time.

In 2003, a radio producer named Dave Isay, opened a listening booth in New York’s Grand Central Station with the idea of creating a quiet place where a person could honor someone who mattered to them by listening to their story.  This was the beginning of a project called Storycorps which has since recorded more than 60,000 thousand interviews of more than 100,000 subjects from all fifty states and beyond.  Some of these stories have been aired on NPR where you may have heard them and include conversations between people on a variety of topics, from shared experiences of war, loss, struggle, and joy.  As StoryCorps explains, “We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.”

Women for Women International was founded  in 1993 by an Iranian woman,  Zainab Salbi and  her husband Amjad Atallah, who were motivated to act after learning of the plight of women in  camps during the wars  in the former Yugoslavia and the slow response of the international community.  WfWI launched its activities by creating “sister-to-sister” connections between sponsors in the United States and women survivors of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In its first year, they worked with eight women, distributing about $9,000 in direct aid. As the organization gained experience, they came to understand that financial assistance alone was not a sufficient response for women who had lost everything. Women survivors of war, especially those left widowed, also needed to cultivate an understanding of their rights and potential as women, develop marketable skills, and find a way to generate stable income.  They now work in many other countries, helping women who have survived the wars and conflicts there, including Afghanistan, Congo, Nigeria and Rawanda. Since their founding, they have helped support nearly 500,000 women by partnering women with individual women who serve as sponsors for this important work.

The vision that Jesus shared in his prayers that night before he died provided a call to all who would follow him, a call for connection, a call for unity, a call to live in a way that understands that in fact, we are our brother or sister’s keeper, that we are not meant to live only with concern for ourselves or our immediate family, but that we are meant to live for a higher purpose, to care for all of our brothers and sisters and to work to build connections that will strengthen us as a whole.  We can imagine that it would not have been Jesus’ hope that so many wars would have been fought over differences in religion over the centuries.   Our nation of these United States bears as its motto, E Pluribus Unum, which we know means, “out of many, one.”  We are stronger as a church; we are stronger as a nation; we are stronger as a world community when we remember the bonds that links us one to another. The founder of the Bahai faith Baha’U’Llah  once wrote, “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole” earth.   Let us be that light.