I met John almost 20 years ago, when I was maybe 30 or so and John was maybe 10 years older. We were in an airport bar, I can’t remember where, and waiting for a flight. Next to us was a younger man on a phone, talking to what I assumed was his girlfriend. He was being sweet and goofy and trying to be quiet while saying things like “no, I love you”. I remember leaning over to my friend John and saying something like – “you know, I remember being that young. 10 years ago, you couldn’t tell me a darn thing about life, about love, about anything. I was so dumb!” I could see my friend John raise his eyebrow at this. He said, “You know, these realizations keep happening as you get older.” He took a sip of his beer while I chewed on this bit of wisdom before I turned to him and said, “You just called me dumb.” He took another sip of his beer and said, “Yes, but it appears that you’re learning.”
It was my friend John that would ask after my kids every time I saw him. It was always the first thing he asked about. He had this big smile on his face when he asked, probably because when my wife and I were struggling with infertility, John was one of the few people I spoke to about it. When his wife died, I was one of the few people he called. Over the years, we were there for each other.
John told me that he voted for Ross Perot in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, W in 2000 and 2008, and Obama in 2008. He probably would have voted for Trump in 2016, out of spite – he was very much anti-Clinton – but I lost him to a heart-attack the summer before that election.
John was a staunch Republican and he never needed my defense of his views. He was a human being, complicated, devout, thoughtful, passionate and compassionate, and fully engaged with life and the nuances of politics. We did not agree on much, but he challenged me repeatedly and relentlessly to rethink and reconsider some of my most deeply held and cherished stereotypes of my political Other. John was a good man, like a brother to me, and I miss him deeply.
I have been thinking about John a lot, lately. It was bound to happen, election fever being what it is, and how everyone – okay, not everyone, but here in the DC area, it sure seems like everyone is very involved and invested in what I hope is going to be a historic election turnout. And this election is important! Most of them are, but this one feels particularly so. It I my belief that we’re being asked, this year, to side with love against racism, against sexism, and against the erasure of our trans friends and neighbors. I believe that this is a defining time, so please, if you remember nothing else, don’t forget to vote.
But during all the furor and excitement and frenzy, I cannot help but get swept up in all the nonsense about how Democrats are foolish, a menace, and un-American. About how Republicans are unreachable, irredeemable, and wholly evil.
And I want to just push the time-out button.
Because I remember what my friend John used to say: “Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we’re still people on Wednesday.”
We’re still people.
Reverend Marlin Lavanhar of All Souls Church in Tulsa last weekend said that “Sin is that which divides us, divides us from ourselves, from each other, from our divinity, from the tapestry of life.” If this is so, then elections are full of sin.
But if sin is what takes us apart; then it makes sense that salvation – if you’ll forgive the word — is what brings us together. What binds us. What connects us. And because election season — and the joys of unrestrained partisanship all in the name of voter turnout — makes seeing that particularly hard, today, I’m going to suggest that we go a bit deep.
Let me start by saying this: I believe people are, fundamentally, good, and fundamentally not all that different. No matter how righteous, or strong, or rich we are, one day in the not-too-distant future, our successes and failures will cease to matter — because — none of us are getting out of here alive. This is the human condition. Everything else? Footnotes.
I believe that there is another fundamental and universal truth – many of us will suffer while we’re here on Earth. Now, it may be weird to think of suffering as something that binds us together, but isn’t that why Jews sit Shiva? Isn’t that’s why condolences are offered? Isn’t that why we celebrate our fallen ancestors? At the end, we will all have suffered great loss. As Reverend Lavanhar told me, “Our tears are the clear waters of our common baptism”. And as they well up and overflow, they link us. One to the other. Tear to tear. Tears of sorrow and grief, tears of joy and love.
Let’s take that a bit deeper, too.
In the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22, starting at verse 36, we read:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He – Jesus — said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.”
The most important thing is God, whatever that word might mean to us. From this divine fountain flows all that is good and right and holy — and orienting toward this higher purpose with our whole being can be an answer to what it means to live a good, a just, a worthwhile life.
But Jesus goes on. Verse 39 says:
“And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Did you hear that first part? A second is like it. That is, this second law Jesus is about to pull from Leviticus is just as important as the law He already pulled from Deuteronomy. Just as encompassing. Just as huge. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Why does Jesus do that? Because it’s quite a statement. Those of you in Julia’s class, “The Old Testament for the Hell of It” will remember that The Law is rather big. There are 613 laws, to be specific. And yet Jesus here sweeps them all into a pile and plucks out these two. A summation. So, why those two?
I like to believe it’s because there’s another reference that Jesus is not naming, not here. Something implied. Again, something deeper. I like to believe that this time, the reference the Gospel writer is referring to is back in Genesis, to a line that goes like this: “God created humankind in God’s own image.”
I like to believe that what the Gospel is saying in the Great Commandment is this: you, who were made in the image of the divine, whenever you look at the face of a friend, a neighbor, a family member, or a stranger, you are looking at the same divinity that you carry within yourself. The same essence. The same magic. The same spark. The same God. What you must see, when you look at the other, is yourself. That the whole of the law, the whole path to righteousness and to a whole life, is to see it. Recognize it. Cherish it. Love it.
And you had no idea how much Christian mysticism we were going to do today, did you? Surprise! I’ve missed you all.
But before I let this thread go, let me grab a couple of not-so-random non-Christian threads, starting with the Persian prophet and Islamic poet, Rumi, who wrote:
“I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.”
We go within – inward – to find the ultimate outward, the Ultimate Other, hidden and not-so-hidden, within each of us, each of us.
But the hits keep coming. The quote that started off today’s sermon for me, comes from yet another tradition, from Hinduism, and it goes like this:
The questioner asked: “How should we treat others?”
Ramana Maharshi responded: “There are no others”.
I love that quote. It makes me think of politics, and immigrant justice, and Republicans like my good friend John.
Ramana Maharshi, if he is not familiar to you, was a Hindu sage who died in 1950. He taught that the self, the ego, the “I” was an illusion. That underneath that, deeper than that, was something else. Something permanent, transcendent, universal. Something we all share. A common ground. Maybe a better way to say it is that underneath the Ego is the one, unified, true thing that all of us are.
To me, this seems to square with both Rumi and Jesus. Right? Love the other because the Other is you. Love the other because the other is God. Love the other because “There are no others.” There is only love. There is only you.
Which brings me to The Egg.
Did you like that story? I first heard it this year when I was in Chicago for school. I might have cried the first time I heard it, but then, I am well known to have leaky facial plumbing. We were sitting on the floor of the hostel, drinking wine and eating chocolate and reading fun bits of theology to each other because it was Tuesday, and it was zero degrees outside because it was January.
I remember sitting in Chicago, thinking about that story. Thinking about all the laughing and shining spirits that I was there with, about all of the other people walking through the hostel, all the people out on the street, or in their cars, coming and going into and out of Chicago, and moving through their lives. How they had gotten up that morning. Bathed, gotten dressed, worried about the clock and the commute and the schedule and the thing they mustn’t forget. Then there was the struggle and the laughter and the suffering and the unexpected and the grind and the wondering if we were doing the right thing or the wrong thing and were they loved, still loved, still worthy of love. I could hear their heartbeats. Millions of heartbeats. Everywhere around me, like a cloud. Like a tide. And suddenly, just for a moment, all of those heartbeats … synchronized. For one beat. Thump-thump.
And it was over.
And I did what anyone would do in a situation like that. I put down the wineglass, said goodnight, and went to bed.
But I was left with this feeling. This sense of deep connection. And I asked myself: Are we all that different, really?
I share 99.9% of my DNA with every other human being on the planet. All the difference I see in the faces around me today has its genesis in that one-tenth of one percent.
We all share 96% of our DNA with apes. Don’t get too excited, humans also share 60% of their DNA with bananas. Which makes a banana split a tasty dessert and an act of ritual cannibalism. As we say in seminary, it’s a both/and.
I’m having fun, but this isn’t to say that difference isn’t real. I need you to hear that. Our lives, our burdens, our stories – all of these are unique and special and challenging in ways specific to us, to the life we live, and the journey are blessed and cursed to be on. And our shared ministry, yours and mine, is to make space for difference, to explore it with curiosity, to hold it up and love it and learn from it. Difference is what makes this world shine.
But I also want to say that the degree of physical difference between you and I, or between you and literally any other human being on the planet, is completely lost in a rounding error. Put another way, you being one-in-a-million also means that that you are one of 8,000 currently wandering about here on good old Planet Earth. Our uniqueness only goes so far.
What I want you to hold this week, this election week, is the possibility of commonality. I am asking you to see, or at least sense, the potential of an underlying bond. To consider, if only briefly, that perhaps ephemeral sense of connection that links things that are eerily similar. I want you to hold that idea even as we hold up and celebrate the idea of love in radical diversity. It’s another both/and. A complexity. A multitude. A pluribus.
A pluribus. We know that word, don’t we. E pluribus unum – out of many, one. Out of thirteen original colonies, our Founders created a new nation. A nation dedicated to new, liberal ideals – the inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Based on the sacred idea that we the people must have a say in what happens, that when we have a say, the magic of community happens. E pluribus unum. For the first 150 or so years of the Union, this was our American motto. But did you know that the phrase itself was lifted from the work of the Roman statesmen Cicero? Cicero, who said “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.”
Let me say that again: “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many.” Prophetic words. The greatest commandment, to love, wound into the very heart of American democracy.
Today, and on this auspicious week, I’m reminded of a certain American, a President who, 14 years ago, asked us all to remember that there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; that there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; that there’s not blue states for Democrats and red states for Republicans. There is only the United States of America. It is our unity that makes us, and makes us strong, and makes us strong together. Long may her flag wave, proud and free.
And may the spirit that defies naming, transcends understanding, and loves through us all, continue to hold us. One and all.