Thank you for the invitation to worship with you this
Sunday. In my new position with Toronto Conference, I work with ministers and
congregations, but mostly from Monday to Friday. Sundays, now, I sing in a
choir, a role which is - generally - a
more relaxing way to worship than being the person in the pulpit. It¡¯s good -
and necessary - for me to be reminded of the life of ministry: ¡®from Sunday to
Sunday¡¯ as some say, or in one writer¡¯s words, facing the ¡®relentless return of
That¡¯s not to say that worship leadership and preaching
don¡¯t offer remarkable moments of grace and sustenance. They do. But they¡¯re
also stressful for the ministry personnel I now serve. I need to remember that
- and you might tuck that information away, too. Tell Doug I said so....
¡®Hope of the World¡¯ we will sing. Indeed. That¡¯s what
Sunday¡¯s all about, isn¡¯t it?
At last week¡¯s meeting of Toronto Conference we heard that
John Lee, retiring Conference President, had requested that a Rose of Sharon
bush be planted at the Conference Office instead of the personal gift often
given retiring presidents. But people in
charge of honouring John couldn¡¯t find one, in any nursery. Gardeners know why.
Garden centres want to sell ¡®assurance¡¯. Their plants are glossy-leafed, budding,
often in bloom far ahead of their normal season. They¡¯re grown to offer
certainty. But Roses of Sharon are hard to force. In spring, they¡¯re always
almost the last plants to bud and swell with green. This year, given last
winter¡¯s and this spring¡¯s cold, they are particularly late. Some have yet to
offer any reassuring sign of life; others have just begun to develop almost
undetectable green buds. Lean close and you may see them. But for John, no Rose
of Sharon - ¡®til later in the year.
Then John told us that in Korean, his native language, the
sign for ¡®Rose of Sharon¡¯ is the sign, as well, for hope.
How powerfully that metaphor speaks to me of the life of
faith. How fully it describes the hope of Christ: not the hothouse hope of
plants forced into bloom before their time, but hope that says life does come
to a world rent by conflict, filled with fear, in an environment which can be
That¡¯s the world in which Jesus prayed, ¡®that they may be
one, as we are one.¡¯ Hearing those words, we might be tempted to despair,
saying, ¡®Excuse me... how can your people ever be one? Look at Israel and
Palestine, at Shia and Sunni Muslims, at terror, at fundamentalists and
liberals, at Catholics and Protestants.¡¯ The list goes on.
But, in today¡¯s text Jesus prepares the disciples for life
in a Rose-of-Sharon world. Hope here isn¡¯t easy or facile, but it can be
beautiful beyond imagining. He prays for them, reassures them. He will be
leaving the world soon, but he wants them to know they will not be abandoned.
The prayer occurs in what is often called ¡®The Final
Discourse¡¯ of John¡¯s Gospel.
Final words are special: final words spoken beside a loved
one¡¯s deathbed; final words uttered by one who is dying; final words said as
sons or daughters leave to make new lives; final words choked out as the front
door slams on a once beautiful relationship; final words murmured before a
soldier departs to keep peace halfway round the world: such words are intense,
focused, passionate. So it was with Jesus.
Jesus prays. Never before had the disciples heard him pray
like this. Jesus prays: ¡®God, protect them in your name... that they may be one
as we are one.¡¯ Jesus knows they need protection. By the time John wrote his
gospel, that need was even more clear. Because of their faith they will be
tested and face overwhelming odds. Theirs will be the language of love in a
world which hails Caesar, theirs the actions of aligning themselves with the
oppressed in a world of power.
Jesus knows the disciples face a tremendous challenge which few would embrace.
Yet, Jesus is counting on his followers to ¡®keep the faith,¡¯, to be a presence
in a world where some remain faithful, connected to the realm of God, despite
intimidation. Jesus offers them a message on how to survive. He stresses
¡°oneness,¡± as a way to face the world¡¯s threats.
When I think of threats I think of terrorism, disease, child poverty or
unemployment. But, Jesus says the greatest threat is divisiveness, disunity.
Without ¡®oneness¡¯, people perish. In other words he reminds his followers to
maintain a relationship with God, with him, with one another. Relationships are
the key to survival.
I think Jesus¡¯ prayer for oneness is not a call for all to
be the same or even for all to agree, but for all to be in relationship. That¡¯s
hope: ¡®that they may be one, as we are one...¡¯ Be one, like God, not monochrome
and uniform, but diverse and multi-faceted, surging with creation¡¯s varied
life: in relationship with life. That¡¯s God¡¯s oneness.
Jesus prays that they may be one as we are one. One of the
church¡¯s classic doctrines is ¡®atonement¡¯, a word associated with ideas like
¡®atoning for sin¡¯. But it actually means ¡®at-one-ment'. However it happens,
whatever is acknowledged and cleansed to enable it, ¡®atonement¡¯ means being ¡®at
one¡¯ with God. When you ¡®atone¡¯, nothing separates you from God; you can live
at one with God's yearning for justice, peace and joy; however broken I am, I
can seek to be made whole, at-one-with-God. As we are one we begin to identify
ourselves in a new way: in relationship with God, the world and others, held by
God¡¯s power of relation which breaks through boundaries and borders, until we
know, as never before, that we are not alone. That¡¯s hope: Rose-of-Sharon hope.
Jesus says, with that hope protecting them, his disciples
can go into the world. In relationship with God, they will become the ¡®Hope of
the World¡¯. They will be in God¡¯s care. That¡¯s hope.
The hope of the world that Jesus leaves his disciples is the
hope of community. As you in this congregation listen to each other and try to
be open, to care, to atone, to worship with faith and hope, despite conflict
and in diversity, know that you are held by God who keeps offering you the Rose
of Sharon¡¯s hope: that when all seems dead and gone, life comes. May the
¡®Christ of great compassion¡¯ fill your mind with peace and your heart with
love, for the dry, dead branches bud like the psalmist¡¯s ¡®trees beside a stream
of water¡¯, and they, too, yield ¡®fruit in due season.¡¯
Remember Jesus' prayer. Hear Jesus¡¯ final words, focused,
passionate and caring: a prayer that all may be one in God¡¯s diversity, held in
God¡¯s hands despite the pain of living in a broken world, a prayer that
promises God¡¯s love in that brokenness, a prayer that you will be faithful to
the hope of the world. Hallelujah! Give thanks.
Rev. Lillian Perigoe
is the Conference
Minister for Personnel Policy and Support,Toronto
Conference, United Church of