I got behind a car the other day whose license plate said “BIODVRSTY,” the way vanity plates do, with the vowels removed. I wondered about the person driving the car. Was she a biologist? A researcher? Was he an environmentalist, concerned about endangered species and habitats? Does he enjoy the outdoors–gardening or farming–and the variety of shapes and colors that occur in nature? Or, does she simply appreciate diversity, understanding it as contributing richly to the experience of life, in a sort of “variety-is-the-spice-of-life” kind of way? We will never know for sure (unless that car belongs to one of you!) and yet the questions are fun to ponder.
That word–biodiversity–refers to the amount of variance present in the layers of life that grace our planet. To study it would involve observing a slice of this earth–The 28205 zip code, for example, or the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, and looking for the number of species or organisms or insects that occur naturally in that space.
I kind of think it works for congregations and people as well, because that what it feels like I’ve done over the past month or so. In getting to know you over coffee and meals and other times, I’ve, in a sense, placed you under a microscope as I’ve listened to your stories. And let me tell you–you have a lot of stories and there’s a lot of diversity here. In your backgrounds, your faith traditions, where you’re from, your families, your current circumstances you are quite far from being a homogeneous group.
This variance might reflect the fact that biodiversity applies to human beings just as it applies to other living organisms. Though we are certainly genetically more alike than we are different, we vary in all sorts of other, smaller ways–from how we metabolize food, to how we handle stress, to how we respond to stimuli, to our individual tastes and preferences and personalities. Add in the “nurture” part each one of us carries with us from our formative years and you can see how the microscope of coffee appointments and meals and visits might reveal such diversity.
And yet, here we are, in one place, by choice. We are members–participants–of one community and one congregation. That in itself is nearly miraculous, for the ways in which we differ make it awfully tempting to seek out people who are just like us. It’s more comfortable that way. It requires less energy, less listening, fewer failed attempts to understand when you can connect with only like-minded or like-bodied people.
Just think about it. Republicans tend to spend their time with fellow republicans; democrats with fellow democrats. Socioeconomic status brings likewise people together while dog lovers find camaraderie with other dog lovers. Or, just think of your school cafeteria–the athletes sat at one table; the nerds sat at another, right? And on this very American Memorial Day weekend, we might also note that ex-pats in foreign countries seek out other ex-pats; while immigrants in this country often have difficulty assimilating. “The Melting Pot” is a myth. Though it’s impossible to find someone exactly like you (even clones are not 100% identical), we do tend gravitate toward people like us.
But that’s not exactly what you’ve done here, at Holy Trinity. Or, rather, it’s not what God has done here. It’s almost as if you all represent an answer to that prayer Jesus prayed long ago: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one.” Jesus was praying for his disciples here–those original first-century twelve, which, thanks to biodiversity, were not as unified a group as we tend to think. I know there were a lot of fishermen in that group, but once you throw Peter in the mix, you’ve got one very interesting group of people. Peter didn’t think like the rest of them, that’s for sure. I also can’t help but think there were some unnamed women who also followed Jesus, and at least one named woman–Mary Magdalene. I think Jesus was praying for all of them, so his prayer for unity for them is a prayer for a group of diverse individuals.
What’s he really praying for here? Surely it’s not to become one in the sense of becoming identical. If that were the case, I’m pretty sure in the beginning God would have created 100% identical clones, not male and female, or birds of the air and fish of the sea or, as my favorite verse from Genesis reads, “cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind.” And I’m pretty sure if becoming identical were the goal, God would not have called such diversity “good.”
Even though Jesus was praying for those who followed him during his lifetime, it seems as if that prayer were intended for generations to come, as if Jesus knew that the tension between diversity and unity among his followers would not go away anytime soon. Any attempt to be “one” in the presence of diversity needs some help from Jesus.
But you want to know what’s remarkable? When, in my meetings with you, I asked many of you how Holy Trinity could grow or change, do you want to know what you said? You said you want to be more diverse, particularly, as it pertains to race. These responses surprised me a little bit–first, because they indicated that you could perhaps not see your diversity as clearly as I could see it as a newcomer and under the lens of the coffee appointment microscope, and second, because they reflected the same imagined sentiment of the driver of that car with the BIODIVRSTY vanity plate: diversity contributes richly to the experience of life, even though it means playing musical chairs in the school cafeteria and stepping out of your comfort zone.
I really believe that that response is God answering Jesus’ prayer, long ago, for unity. And I think it’s also you seeing in such united diversity a certain amount of the protection that Jesus also prayed for. Maybe, when it boils down to it, we are so diverse, even among like-minded or like-bodied individuals, that we will always need Jesus’ help for unity and Jesus’ mediation on our behalf.
But, in seeking such help, here’s what I think we find. Yes, we’re all pretty different, but we are also all created by God, all loved by God, perhaps in the way Jesus talks about it in Matthew’s Gospel–in the way that “the sun rises on the evil and the good” and in the way that God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Those baptismal waters wash over each one of us equally; that bread and wine is for all.
And then, I think Jesus is also getting at the simple fact that we need one another. Jesus associated unity with protection and it would be presumptuous to think that he didn’t know what he was talking about. We need the diversity, because this world is not complete without it. This community is not complete without your artistic abilities, or your physical strength, or your number-crunching skills, or your knowledge of mechanics, or your care for children, or your experience with the homeless, or your experience of poverty or your experience of wealth. We could go on and on. We cannot truly be one, in the sense that Jesus talks about it, until we recognize that we are forever incomplete–incomplete, at least, until Jesus comes again.
Your attitude–that we need to be more diverse–must be God’s answer to Jesus’ prayer to make us one, which really means help us appreciate one another, not erasing difference, but embracing it and finding in it not that we are all the same, but that we are incredibly loved–and needed–for our differences.