What I just read was part of the 17th chapter of John which is known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. Jesus is once again trying to prepare his disciples for what was going to happen, warning them about the future, and equipping them to carry on his ministry.
As we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are very much like those disciples that Jesus was instructing prior to his leaving. The world is in a mess – war, poverty and starvation, racial injustice, climate chaos, general discord, – all covered with a dangerous pandemic of disease pervade nearly every corner of the earth. But there are many people who are doing what needs to be done to try and stem the advance of the virus and keep everyone safe. However, there is also a faction of small and self-absorbed people who want everything to return to ‘normal’ NOW, regardless of the consequences to others. They have no regard for those who might be infected and conceivably die because of their cavalier attitude. I don’t know about you, but I am not ready to die so that everything can go back to someone else’s idea of ‘normal’.
But just like the disciples found after Jesus left, in our hearts, we know there is no going back to the way life was. There is now and will be in the future a new world – a new ‘normal’. And we are all going to have to learn to exist in that new ‘normal’, much like the disciples found as they tried to continue spreading the love of Jesus.
We now know that we live in a global world – what one country does has significant effects on the rest of the world. One of the things we need to work toward is unity in the care of God’s creation and its people. We need to pray not only for our own government and leaders, but for all people, all governments and God’s creation.
At a Promise Keepers Pastor’s Conference held in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Max Lucado reminded us that
“On the last night of his life our Master did not pray for the health of the disciples; for the success of the disciples; even for the happiness of the disciples. He prayed that they would get along with each other.”
We don’t seem to be doing a very good job of getting along, let alone cooperating with each other. In an environment of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and lack of unity within people, churches, political parties, and governments, we need to remember a part of the Lord’s Prayer:
“on earth as it is in Heaven”.
So, how do we accomplish that? How do we bring about and work toward unity?
First, it has to start with us. We can’t wait for anyone else to start. We have to be proactive. We have to take the first steps. We have to stop doing and saying those things that lead to, cause, and perpetuate divisions amongst us. We have to be the first to act.
Second, we have to pull together. We must conduct our lives in ways that will not only benefit us, but protect and nurture others. We all enjoy the freedom of speech, but scaring people with vitriolic protests, calling people names, and assaulting those who don’t agree with us does not help us work toward unity in any cause, let alone in fighting and controlling this virus.
We also must begin to heal the earth; because of the lack of pollution resulting from sheltering-in-place, for the first time in thirty years you can actually see Mount Everest; photos from the Space Lab show the clear depths of the ocean without all the garbage we continually feed into it. Los Angeles, Beijing, and even Mumbai have clean skies and fresh air. Mother Nature has begun to heal this blue marble that we live on. It is up to us not to return to our old ‘normal’ and start spoiling it again.
The care of people and the planet must begin with all of us, working together for the good of all the people in the world – and for future generations to come.
Unity has to begin with us. Imagine the powerful force we could exert as a people, a congregation, and as the church in the world, if we all “pulled together as a team.” When we have a common purpose; a shared vision, a common goal, then we can do almost anything.
We have hope that this COVID-19 infection will soon subside, medical and pharmaceutical researchers will find a vaccine, and there will be therapeutics for those who are infected and prevent their deaths. But our hope must be accomplished by support of those working to find a vaccine or a cure.
As Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers and church, we must continue to pray; we must pray because we’re not called to do it alone. We’re called to pull together for a worldwide goal.
Unity isn’t easy. Most of us have never learned how to disagree in love. Or how to love those with whom we disagree. But Jesus not only prayed for it, He modeled it for us.
Remember when the disciples came to Him complaining about the people who were preaching and doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but weren’t part of the disciples. They were ready to run them out of town or call down lightning upon their heads. Jesus told the disciples not to stop them and said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit.”
In a Family Circus comic, little Billy was praying. He prayed, “Make me good. And if you don’t get through to me the first time, please keep tryin’ ’til I answer.” That should be our prayer.
We have to continue to work toward unity and understanding – between each other, between the races, between cultures, between governments, and between people.
It seems quite appropriate that I would be preaching on this Sunday, because it is my farewell sermon – also, this is my last Sunday at Saint Stephen’s. Beginning with Pentecost you will have a permanent Deacon.
As I take my leave, I certainly have met some wonderful people while serving here, although not as personally since a lot of our time has been electronically. But I can say that I am going to miss you all, and will always treasure my time here.
So, on this last Sunday for me at Saint Stephen’s, I leave you with the hope that everyone will pull together, love each other, and work for ‘heaven on earth’, just as Jesus showed us by his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection.
As we continue to destroy the earth and cause pandemics through our own actions, let us ask Mother Earth to direct us as we pray:
You are hurting and suffering from the selfishness and irresponsibility of your children. We dig into your womb, poison your streams and seas, destroy your forests, and slowly kill you. You have been protecting and nurturing us for ages, and for that, we should be grateful and love you. So, I ask you, our common Mother, to pardon your children and help them find the light buried in their hearts.
 May 15, 1996, Bill Keane
Delivered at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church and University Center, Columbus, OH; 24 May 2020