Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, but upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

It was still cool in the early morning when the man prepared to mow his lawn. He looked forward to being able to drive back and forth over the grass before the sun made it too hot, and it was an opportunity for him to escape from all the busyness of the world. The hum of the machine below his legs was barely audible over his ear protection and he continued to mow until the lawn was immaculate.

As he maneuvered the mower toward the garage, he hopped off to inspect the machine when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled to the ground. The two men rolled down the hill grappling each other until they came to a stop, and the fighting really began.

Hours later the mowing man was in the hospitable with six broken ribs wondering what had led him to all of this.

That man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, a senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the fight broke out. Was the assailant an opponent of Paul’s political ideologies? Was he so moved by debates on Capitol Hill that he felt violence was the only solution? Was Paul involved with some nefarious characters and now we were seeing behind the curtain?

Not since 1856 had a sitting senator been so beaten and sent to a doctor. It was a frightening moment for law-makers all across the country as they began wondering if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out. The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

I’m not making this up people! While a great sum of people assumed that Paul’s political persuasion was to blame for the attack, while the media continued to stir the pop as much as possible, it was all about a neighborhood squabble.

Though this one left a man in the hospital with 6 broken ribs.

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Remember that you were once without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace! In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Have you ever been mad at a neighbor? Maybe they kept playing their music too loud into the early morning hours, or perhaps they kept parking their car in front of your driveway, or maybe they kept blowing their lawn clippings on to your property…

Robert Frost once famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors. And one could make the argument that strong walls make for better peace. There’s a reason the Vatican is surrounded by walls, and the White House, and even the Temple in Jerusalem.

            Every child that has had to share a room knows the value of a wall (though in this case a figurative one).

            There’s a reason we have to go through security before we got on an airplane.

            But good walls also make for bad neighbors.

During the initial hearing after the lawn mower battle, it came to light that Rand Paul and his neighbor had not exchanged a word with one another for over ten years. Tens years of frustration about lawn clippings boiled over to the point that violence came forth. That’s a pretty tremendous wall to share with a neighbor, a wall of hostility that’s stronger than any bit of chain, any concentration of concrete, or any fabricated fence.

The higher we build the walls around us, both the real and the imagined, the higher the hostility tends to be. Every year more and more gated communities are completed. Year after year new boundary lines are drawn for schools, for taxable business, and a whole slew of other items. Year after year we tend to spend more time with people who look like us and think like us and talk like us than ever before.

And yet Paul is bold, some might say foolish, to proclaim that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, that Christ has eradicated the hostility between us.

One need not drive around for very long, or turn on the television, or simply swipe on a phone, to know that hostility is still very real, and that new walls are being constructed each and every day.

However, in the blood and cross of Christ, Jesus’ peace has been made possible for us.

And this is where the struggle between building walls and erasing hostility really comes into focus. It is far too easy to read a passage like this from Ephesians and then make some sort of declaration about current realities like the proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico, or furthering divides within our local community. And for as much as that might be true, those are walls and hostilities and visions of peace defined by our terms, and not necessarily by Jesus.

When we think of peace, we might imagine a time and place where everyone will just get along, or at least where people will just start being nice with one another.

But Jesus, the Lord of lords, he doesn’t have a lot to say about being nice. Sure, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick… those are all nice things. Doing all of that might make the world a little more peaceful.

But Jesus’ peace, a divine peace, also looks like turning the tables over in the temple, it looks like calling to task the political and religious elite for making such a mockery of the kingdom, it looks like abandoning the people closest to you if it means making God’s new reality manifest on earth.

And sometimes Jesus’ peace doesn’t jive with our version of peace.

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One of the greatest challenges of being a Christian today is that many of us simply cannot resonate with the deep and profound truth that we were once far off and have now been brought near by the blood of Jesus. If we’ve grown up in the church, or can’t remember a time when the church was not pivotal in our life, we make the assumption that we have always been near. But all of us here are gentiles, we were far from the Lord and were only brought close because of Jesus.

And when we recognize our far-off-ness, when we recognize the immense chasm that has been joined in the blood of Jesus between us and God, it makes the peace of Jesus a whole lot more interesting.

Jesus’ peace is different than our peace, and is only possible because of his peace. We are no longer stranger and aliens to one another, but instead we are citizens of the household of God. This is the best news my friends! Whatever divisions and hostilities we might imagine between us, they have been wiped away! The cross stands as the great unifier between all of God’s people, including us.

            Jesus’ peace is greater than any earthly vision we could possibly imagine. It is more powerful than any political policy, it is mightier than any magistrate’s order, it is more life giving than any piece of legislation.

            Jesus’ peace is revolutionary.

And Jesus’s peace is nothing short of Jesus himself. In the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord we discover not just a way to live differently, but also the way that makes a way where there was no way. Jesus destroyed, and continues to destroy, the walls and the hostility between us, because we have been made one in the blood.

Now, of course, there is the temptation to treat the church like the unique place of peace, a one-hour a week reprieve from the madness of the world. Church, what we are doing here right now, is not the place where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people whom we might otherwise ignore during the week. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new peace, one in which a different power from the cross redefines the ways of the world.

Does this mean that we need to leave from this building and start tearing down our backyard fences? Should we go to our country’s southern border and protest the construction of a giant wall? Is this text compelling us to destroy every boundary that has ever existed?

Destroying walls does not in itself create peace. We still live in a very broken world in which our sinful desires compel us to make choices we know we should not make. Peace, Jesus’ peace, only comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls, and that’s not something within our own power.

Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, rather than trying to become our own Gods and destroying new walls, Paul pushes us to let ourselves be built upon the cornerstone of Christ into a temple where God dwells.

And friends, this is no easy task. To do so requires humility all but lost in the world today. It requires a willingness to say that I cannot do this on my own, that I have failed to love my fellow brothers and sisters, that I have ignored the power of Jesus blood.

To be built upon the cornerstone of Christ, rather than building our own walls, is to fundamentally commit ourselves to Jesus instead of trying to commit Jesus’ to whatever we want.

            It is nothing short of letting our lives embody the words we pray each and every week, “let thy will be done.”

When each of you entered the sanctuary this morning you were handed a Lego piece. I asked you to hold it and consider your piece in the kingdom. I did this because each of us has a piece to play in peace.

But it’s not our responsibility alone.

As Paul so rightly puts it, Jesus came and proclaimed peace to us! We were far off and through Jesus we have been united with one another in one Spirit to the Father.

We are no longer strangers and aliens; all has been made new! We are citizens with fellow saints and members of the household of God. We have been built about the foundation of those who came before, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

In Jesus the entire structure of reality is joined together and it continues to grow in the holy temple in the Lord. Our oneness, the destruction of our hostility, is the beginning of the dwelling place for God.

And so we hold our piece that is part of Jesus’ peace. But we are not alone. In just a moment, each of us will be invited forward to connect our piece to Jesus’ peace. We will be built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus the Christ, the one who is our peace. We will see our connected and stuck we each other we really are. And we will remember that Christ has already destroyed the walls between us and erased the hostility. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 133.1

Devotional:

Psalm 133.1

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

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It is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity, but it rarely happens. Instead, in-laws fight over table decorations for wedding receptions, children argue over who received the most Christmas presents, and spouses argue about the strangest things until they lose their voices. Even beyond the nuclear family, kindred (in the larger sense) are divided over a great number of topics including politics, economics, and ethics.

I am convinced that for as much good as social networking and the 24-hours news cycle have brought into the world there is also just as much evil. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, VA people on every spot of the spectrum have come out to voice their particular opinion as if shouting into the void without a care as to who might hear it. I have friends, good friends, who posted on their Facebook pages some truly hateful language regarding the protestors and anti-protestors. One person said that the young woman who was murdered by the driver who drove into the crowd of people would still be alive if she wasn’t a fat-good-for-nothing trying to interrupt a “peaceful protest.” Another person wrote about how we should jail and/or physically punish all white republicans because they’re all “racists on the inside.” And still yet another person wrote about the need to reassert the values of “white America” over and against all other types of Americas.

And all of this was posted publicly for the world to see.

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The psalmist declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Unity is a rare thing in the world today, let alone in our individual communities. Rather than seeking unity we almost always just spend our time with those who already have our opinion and instead of seeking to find common ground we stake our claim and dig deeper into our own ground.

As Christians we believe that the church is the better place that God has made in the world. For us, the church is the place where even though we do not think alike we can love alike. We sit down in pews with people who are of different opinions, we gather with them at the altar, and we are sent forth with them to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world. If we cannot have unity in the church, unity in a common purpose to love, then the world will continue to be a place of walls and divisions and disunity.

This week, as we continue to take steps in faith and seek God’s kingdom here on earth, let us join our voices together in a common prayer:

“Almighty God, help us to remember that before Jesus marched to the cross he prayed for his disciples that they might be one. In the same fellowship that is between you and your Son and your Spirit, in the same hope of the prayer that Jesus offered in the garden, we pray for unity in your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you. Help us so to love you and one another that your kingdom might reign here on earth now and forever. Amen.”

Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

Unity in the UMC

Psalm 133

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

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I love meeting people in our community and introducing myself as a pastor for the United Methodist Church. I love doing this because I never know what people will say in return.

“Oh, you must be that pastor who encouraged his church to start wearing hardhats to worship because God has a knack for tearing down walls…”

“No, you’re thinking of Clayton Payne at Cherryvale UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves shouting things like ‘Mercy!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the pulpit”

“No, you’re thinking of Bryson Smith at St. Paul’s UMC

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is forever mentioning apple butter and its many uses and applications.”

“No, you’re thinking of Sarah Locke at Christ UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who is absolutely obsessed with the Washington Redskins and even had the office painted burgundy and gold.”

“No, you’re thinking of Bob Sharp from Marquis Memorial UMC. Though I wish my office looked like his.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves using objects in sermons, like handing out mirrors for people to remember the need to shine Jesus’ light.”

“No, you’re thinking of Janet Knott at Jollivue UMC.”

“Oh, well you don’t look Korean…”

“No, you’re thinking of Won Un at Central UMC.”

“Oh, you must be the pastor everyone raves about with a particular gift for preaching, handsome features, and can get congregations to shout ‘Amen!’ with feeling.”

(Sigh) “No, you’re thinking of John Benson at Augusta Street UMC.

“Oh, well then who are you?”

All of us pastors, and all of our churches are known for a variety of things. We’re known for our community engagement: Fish Fries, Apple Days, and Christmas Tree Sales. We’re known for the ways that our pastors like to preach and pray. We are known for a variety of things. We are known for how different we are from one another.

But the one thing I wish all people in Staunton knew about the United Methodist Church is that we love and worship the living God.

 

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!

The psalmist is right. We all know, on some level, the beauty of a community in unity. When we are working in one accord, when we harmonize with one another, it is very good and pleasant. But then we grimace at the way the psalmist talks about the beauty of unity. Can you imagine what would happen if I pulled John Benson up to the front of the sanctuary and poured extra virgin olive oil all over his head? And what is it about heavy dew that it supposed to elevate the blessing of unity?

Well, in the world of the psalmist, oil and dew were signs of God’s blessing. Like manna in the wilderness and the anointing of the prophets, these images speak to something greater at work than mere mortals. Yet, we are so removed from the time of the psalmist that these images no longer carry the weight they once did. Perhaps we need a new way of imagining the beauty of unity in community.

About a year ago, we started putting plans together for a community wide Trunk-or-Treat. Many of our churches had participated in some sort of Halloween celebration over the last few years, but we began imagining how much of an impact we could have if we worked together.

By the time October came around, all of the pieces were set and we were ready to host the Trunk-or-Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. On the day of the event I arrived super-early with hopes of setting the area up and organizing volunteers. We really had no idea how many people would show up but we were prepared for whatever would happen.

We handed out extra candy to all of the trunks, we set up safe areas for children to wander around, and we passed out orange vests to volunteers. The whole afternoon honestly felt like a whirlwind as we were trying to get everything together.

At the height of our preparations I noticed a small family off to the side of the parking lot watching us run around. They must’ve been standing there for ten minutes when I finally walked over to introduce myself.

What are you all doing?” the mother asked while keeping her three young boys close.

I said, “We’re calling it a Trunk-or-Treat, it’s a safe way to celebrate Halloween. We’ll be finished setting up in about an hour and we’d love it if you’d come through.” And with that she smiled shyly smiled and left the park.

Hours later, after 3,500 people came through the Trunk-or-Treat I was exhausted. Some of the last families were making their way through the few trunks that still had candy when I noticed the small family from earlier standing by the edge of the lot. The boys were not wearing costumes, but each of them held a bag full of candy with huge grins across their faces. I started walking over to find out if they had enjoyed themselves, but as I got closer I realized that even though the children were smiling, the mother was crying.

Is everything okay?” I asked.

With a wipe of her sleeve she tried to cover her tears and then said, “My boys have never had a Halloween before. All these people gave them candy and talked to us and asked us questions and they don’t even know us. You invited us to come earlier and you don’t even know us.

I replied, “You’re right. I don’t know you. But God does. And God loves you.

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How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a mother all on her own, trying to raise her boys, who is treated with love and dignity by a strange community called the church. It is like the tears of a young mother rolling down her cheeks in recognition that she is not alone, and that she is loved no matter what.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a group of people striving to be Christ’s body for the world through acts of grace and mercy. It is like volunteers giving out candy to countless children for no other reason than the fact that they too are children of God.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a church that no longer treats other churches as competition, but instead sees them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is like a group of people who believe that need trumps greed, that there can be unity in community, and that by the power of God’s grace the world can be transformed.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. Amen.