There once was a man, a leader, who looked out upon his people and saw that they were broken apart. It had been his hope to make them one, to unite them in one triumphant band. But watching them as they went about their daily work, he saw that they were deeply and hopelessly divided, and that without help they would continue to live lives of separation and regret. And so this man, this leader, made a decision. He himself would make things right. He would offer himself up as a sacrifice, turn himself over to be hated and abused, and in his sacrifice, his people would find their way. In his sacrifice, his people would see how they were bound to each other, and they would ultimately take hold of the glorious victory that was rightly theirs. In other words, they might just take home the gold medal.
Like many of you, I have had the Olympics on the brain this week, and I've found myself thinking back to one of the greatest Olympic moments of all time – not in 2016 in the sunny carnival of Rio de Janeiro, but in 1980 in the “frozen tundra”* that was Lake Placid, New York. Herb Brooks was the coach of the American men’s hockey team that year, a team that was expected – no, guaranteed – to lose. The fearsome engine of Soviet sports was in full swing then, and the teams of the Soviet bloc were unstoppable. The men had played together for years; they skated like lightning and moved across the ice like a machine. Brooks’ team, on the other hand, was composed mostly of college hot-shots, who not only had never played together but had actively played against each other. Their inter-collegiate rivalries ran deep, and Brooks found himself coaching a team that hated the idea of playing with each other more than they hated the idea of losing to the Soviets.
But Brooks had an idea. He would sacrifice himself before the altar of Olympic glory in order to give his team of bull-headed, fractious young men a whisper of a chance of winning. He did the only thing he could do to stop them from hating each other so much; he made himself so hard-nosed, so tyrannical, so despicable, that they all started to hate him. And when they all started hating him, they finally found something in common. They were still infuriated, but now, they were all infuriated about the same thing. Suddenly, they started playing as a team. And you know the end of the story – they beat the Soviets, and then beat Finland, and took home the gold. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!
But this wasn’t, actually, a miracle. It was a masterful plan, made by one man, who was willing to sacrifice himself, his own likeability, to make his team one. For Herb Brooks, unity was everything. It was worth any cost he might have to pay. It was worth it to be hated if he could give those young men the chance to earn what they had long desired – a gold medal and a place in those Olympic legends we all like to tell this time of year. Okay, so his plan was just the slightest bit manipulative, but Herb Brooks made those players a team, made them one, and we admire him for it.
There is something innately admirable about unity. There’s something noble about the idea of a group of disparate people uniting for a common purpose or against a common enemy. It’s truly American, it’s truly human, to seek unity and to place those who bring it about on a pedestal, or, often, in office. When there is work to be done, when there is an impossible mountain to climb, or when fear is all around, unity can feel like the only thing that matters, the highest good, no matter what price we might have to pay for it. Unity at any cost can begin to sound almost like Gospel…right up until the moment we hear Jesus’ message to his disciples in today’s passage from Luke. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” he says. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Hearing that, we realize that there is more to the story than unity at any cost.
But to be honest, I’m not sure how much of that story I want to hear. I mean, last week we heard Jesus say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” And this week he says he’s coming to bring division? Is there any promise, any news, anything we would like to hear less right now? Have mercy, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of division. The maelstrom of our division threatens to swamp us at any moment. Wave after wave crashes down on us every day, in every news cycle – white and black, men and women, rich and poor, undocumented workers and American citizens, gun-owners and non-gun-owners, Muslims and everybody else, black lives matter and blue lives matter and all lives matter, Republican and Democrat and all of their various and sundry sub-divisions. And then there are the divisions that don’t make the news – the divisions in our workplaces or in our households or hearts, the ugly divisions that splinter our Church. We live amongst the wreckage of these divisions every moment of every day. So wouldn’t it be nice to hear Jesus say to us, Do not be afraid, little flock, for I have a masterful plan to take all of those divisions away. You won’t even know what’s happening. I’ll fix it to make you all one, and we’ll worry about everything else later. Sounds promising, right? Sounds like a bit of a miracle. And should we expect anything less of our Savior than this?
But this is not what our Savior says. Jesus does not promise us unity at all costs, because Jesus is interested in more than that. Jesus is interested in more than a unity built upon hypocrisy and hatred. Jesus is interested in more than a unity held together by disgust and disdain. Jesus is interested in more than a unity of some that builds walls to keep others out. Jesus is interested in more than a unity that is only on our own terms, a unity that is built upon the sand of our partial understandings. Jesus wants more than just cheap unity.** Jesus wants us to be more than just one; Jesus wants us to be one in him.
And to be made one in him, Jesus offers us a hope that less like the promise of gold and glory and more like a sword that slices into our world and reorders everything – the top on the bottom, the bottom on the top, the secret truth brought to the fore, the lowly asked to sit up higher, our every expectation turned downside up in the light of Christ’s refining fire. Remember, this is a Messiah whose mother sang him to sleep each night with the words of the Magnificat. A unity that ignores these Gospel truths is worth nothing at all. What is the point of such unity if it keeps the mighty in their seat and puts down the humble and meek? What good is a unity that continues to fill the rich with good things and sends the hungry empty away?
Jesus wants more for us than this, he longs for a unity that connects us not just to each other but to the very heart of God. And so, he tells us, we are to do this one thing. We are to pay attention. We are to interpret the present time. And that time, our time, needs us to live the words of Our Lady’s Magnificat. Our time needs us to save the weak and the orphan, to defend the humble and needy, and to deliver them from the power of the wicked. Our time needs us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Our time needs us to refuse to see any of our neighbors as less worthy of love then we are. Our time needs us to embrace all those who differ from us, especially those who differ the most. Our time needs us to unite not to defeat our enemies but to love them. Our time needs us to refuse, again and again, to use words that threaten and harm. Our time needs us to embrace, again and again, the language of the gospel, which shines the light of the truth of God’s love into the world like a beacon of hope. Our time needs us to pay attention, to live the promises we hold, to seek a costly unity.
And the gift, the unearned prize, the real miracle, is that Jesus Christ our Savior has already accomplished the one thing that makes that kind of deep, enduring, transformative unity possible. He has been baptized with his own unique baptism, raised up high – not upon a pedestal, but upon the cross, to draw all people to himself. He has offered himself up as a sacrifice, not through hatred, but through love. All we need do is come to the foot of that cross, here – receive this bread and this wine and be re-membered into one body, confess our sins and return to the Lord, sing psalms and spiritual songs with one voice, let the truth of the Gospel catch fire in our hearts that it may shine out into our time, into our world. Come and count the cost of this unity, paid for you and for me by a God who is very near to you. Come, and do not be afraid. For it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
14 August 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
*Borrowed shamelessly from NFL films
**Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace"