How Good it is to Dwell in Unity - Message from April 11, 2021

Second Sunday of Easter

Scripture: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133:1-3

Preacher: Rev. Ron Parker

Message: How Good it is to Dwell in Unity


Listen to podcast | Tithes and Offerings



Transcript

"How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity." (Psalm 133:1)


What does it take to dwell together in unity? The first thing, I think, is to be utterly present. To be tuned in to those with whom you want to dwell in unity.


A couple of months ago, Ruth and I met Connie and Judy out in the Delta to look at birds. We were especially interested in seeing the Sandhill Cranes that were wintering there, but there were lots of other birds there as well. An extra special treat was watching a murmuration of a mixed flock of thousands of Red-wing and Yellow-headed blackbirds. I'm guessing that many of you have watched murmurations of Starlings on YouTube videos, but for those of you who are not familiar with murmurations, let me explain. A "murmuration" is a big flock of birds, often Starlings, that fly closely together and make seemingly-simultaneous turns. It is an amazing sight to see. It is thought that they do it to avoid predatory hawks and falcons.


In recent years, there has been a lot of speculation and research about how they do this amazing coordinated flying. Back in the 1930s some scientists speculated that birds had psychic powers that enabled them to fly in such close coordination, but recent research seems to reveal that each bird keys his or her movement of the nearest seven or eight birds in the flock. This translates through the flock to create the amazing displays we see in the sky. They’re experts at paying attention.


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


What kind of concentration and attention does it take for these birds to respond almost instantly to the movements of the other birds around them?


In some of the movies of the 1930s and 40s we were treated to the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred Astaire often got more attention, but others pointed out that Ginger Rogers had to do everything he did, backwards and in high heels. What kind of attention does it take to be the one who follows Fred Astaire.


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


Paying attention--I think that's the key.


I must have been twelve or thirteen when, one day in early June, Uncle Everette sent me out to cultivate corn in a field up on the north farm. Now remember, this was more than sixty years ago and the cultivator that was hitched to the old Ferguson tractor could do just three rows at a time. "The trick is," Uncle Everette said, "is to pay attention all the time, so the teeth of the cultivator stay between the rows and take out the weeds, but not the corn." To help me out, he had screwed an old car radio antenna to the right-hand side the front axle of the tractor so it looked like the front sight of a rifle. He said, "Just keep that sight lined up on the row and you'll be fine."


It seemed simple enough. He dropped me off at the end of the field up at the north farm and drove off. The tractor and cultivator were sitting where he had left off the day before. I climbed up on the tractor and started it up, put it in a low gear and eased out the clutch. The little sight that he had bolted to the axle was right over the row of little six-inch corn plants. It was easy to keep it lined up. I watched the little corn plants as they marched under the sight on the front axle.


After a few minutes, I looked back over my shoulder to see if the blades of the cultivator were between the rows as they were supposed to be. They looked perfect. I watched them for a couple of minutes, taking pride in my new skill. After a minute or so I noticed that the cultivator teeth were not staying as perfectly between the rows of little corn plants as they had been. I whipped my head around to the front to discover that the little sight had wandered off to the right by about six inches. I quickly turned the wheel to the left and over-corrected until I found myself off the line to the left. By the time I got lined up and was watching the little miniature corn stalks march under the sight on the axle, I had taken out about 20 feet of corn plants. I say "about" because I didn't dare look back to check.


I kept my eyes glued to the sight, watching the little corn plants marching perfectly under the little sight. After about ten minutes or so, I started to wonder how long it might take me to do the whole field. I was about half-way across the field. I glanced at my watch and figured that it would probably take about 12 minutes to make one pass across the field. I started counting the remaining rows to my right until I got to about thirty and remembered to look back at the little sight. This time I had wandered off to the left by about eight inches. I quickly adjusted until the little sight was perfectly aligned over the row of corn. I didn't know how long I'd been ripping out the rows of corn, but I resolved to pay perfect attention from then on.


Some of you may be ahead of me already. What happens when you give your full attention to little corn plants coming under the little sight on the front axle one at a time with perfect regularity? Of course, you fall asleep. And what happens when you fall asleep at the wheel of a tractor while cultivating corn. Pretty soon, you are eliminating the corn from a patch of weeds.


Paying attention is not as easy as we might think. But it’s essential to cultivating corn, ballroom dancing, flying with a flock of birds and … dwelling together in unity.


I had not heard of meditation at that point in my life, but it was my first experience of the challenge of keeping my mind in the present moment.


Being able to pay attention to the present moment is an essential skill for the "dwelling together in unity" that the Psalmist talks about.


But recently, I've been becoming more aware of how just paying attention to the closest seven or eight members of the flock is not enough. Dwelling together in unity requires paying attention to those around you with the same kind of focus that a starling in a flock or Ginger Rogers has. It requires not dwelling on past resentments or regrets. It requires not fantasizing or worrying about the future. It requires keeping your attention in the present moment and giving that attention to the other person and the situation you are in together.


But the kind of attention we need is not just on our dance partner or the seven or eight people closest to us. Our attention needs a broader range.


Every year, in the first part of December, I go through my checkbook and credit card bills and the file folder marked "contributions" to see if I have given to the causes and organizations I intended to support. I make sure my pledge to the church is up to date and the other things I give to have been done. It's also a time to think about what is important to me and what I want to support.


But this year, as I was doing that little exercise, I started thinking about how this year was different. Retired people are often considered vulnerable because we are on a "fixed income." But, as it turned out, this was a good year to be on a fixed income. Many people whose incomes were not fixed, now had no income at all.


Not only that, when I looked at my credit card bills and checkbook, I found we were spending less money this year. That, coupled with the effect of the rising stock market on our retirement funds, meant that it looked like we might end up the year better off than we started. Then, to top it off, we received a stimulus check in the mail.


I suddenly started to feel like I was on the wrong side of some divide. There were people who were hungry and in danger of losing their housing and I was getting richer. That put my year-end reckoning of my contributions in a new light. I set about to figure out what it take to set it right.


I needed to broaden my attention to the present moment of history that I found myself in. I had to re-assess the range of people with whom I dwelt in unity.


Over the next few weeks, I was excited to share my insight with about a dozen friends, who I thought might find themselves in similar circumstances. I was taken aback by mostly being met with an uncomfortable silence. It was then that I started to realize the deep cultural bias we have in favor of taking care of ourselves at the expense of others, of defining “unity” narrowly. "Community" has its limits, even for generous liberal folks. Attention was not focused on the reality of the present moment but on some past sense of entitlement or future fear that we would not have enough.


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


In a murmuration of blackbirds or starlings, those members of the flock that become separated from the flock often fall to birds of prey.


If I just watch those who live next door to me, my flock is not big enough.


We’re blessed with some folks at Epworth who’ve been helping us broaden our attention to what is happening in this moment in history beyond our own little flock or favorite dance partners.


Some of us have taken up an opportunity offered by Diane Rush-Woods to look into the lives of black people who have been killed by police. She did this exercise first with a class she was teaching at Cal-State East Bay and now is offering it to Epworth folk. The task is to choose one black person who has been killed by police and learn as much about him or her as possible, not just how they died, but who they were and what their life was about. The news reports are often full of the circumstances of their deaths, but lack much about the details of their lives. These were people, not statistics. It is a way of manifesting our belief that black lives matter more than black deaths.


This is an exercise in paying attention and broadening the scope of our attention. It has been a powerful and eye-opening experience.


The second part of our assignment is to create a work of art or a piece of writing to express what we have found. The results will appear in the windows outside the church office on Hopkins Street over the next few weeks. Along with this there is an invitation for any of you to join this process. I urge you to contact Diane for a list of people to choose from and the guidelines for the project.


Paying attention…to black lives.


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


Some of us have been staying in touch with Epworth member, Amelia Chua, while she has been in Thailand, taking care of her father over the past few months. In addition to the challenges she faces there, Amelia has been helping coordinate a project here on the West Coast of the U.S. to address the problem of anti-Asian violence. She is helping us be present to this situation in our midst.


I have to admit that violence and prejudice against Asian-American people was pretty much off my radar until Amelia opened my eyes. Because Amelia was part of a group I led for Lent last year. She became part of my flock in a new and formative way. Those of us who have continued on this journey have our attention broadened. The flock we fly with has gotten bigger.


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


Most of us are pretty good at flying with attention to the seven or eight people closest to us. Some of us are good dancers. But the additional task I’m offering today is to reach beyond the easy and close-at-hand companions, to not be distracted from giving our very present attention to our more distant companions.


We can’t fly or dance together, if we don’t pay attention. Paying attention takes practice and expanding.


***


Order of Service (Bulletin) - April 1, 2021

GATHERING OUR STRENGTH

  • Prelude: "Adagio" J.S. Bach - Rev. Jerry Asheim

  • Welcome and Announcements - Merrie Bunt

  • Dare to Dance Again - Dr. Marcia McFee & Chuck Bell

  • Opening Hymn: "Thine Be the Glory" UM Hymnal #308 - Worldwide UMC Virtual Choir

LEARNING THE STEPS

  • Scripture Reading: Acts 4:32-35 - Connie Adachi

  • Children's Message: "Dreamers" - Susan Jardin

  • Psalm 133:1-3 - Connie Adachi

  • Anthem - "I Hope You Dance" by Sanders Mark Daniel / Sillers Tia Maria - Judy Kriege

  • Message: “Dwelling Together in Unity" - Rev. Ron Parker

THE BODY MOVES IN RESPONSE

  • Hymn of Response - "Lord of the Dance" UM Hymnal #261 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Caroline Lee

  • Call for Prayer - Judy Cayot

  • Special Music: “Every Time I Feel the Spirit" - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Chris Poston

  • The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer) - Judy Cayot

  • Our Resources and our Energy - Becky Wheat

  • Special Music: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" - Aeri & Caroline Lee

STEPPING OUT INTO THE WORLD

  • Prayer of Dedication - Orion Lacey

  • Closing Hymn: “The Summons" The Faith We Sing #2130 - Rev. Jerry Asheim & Caroline Lee

  • Benediction - Rev. Ron Parker

  • Postlude: "Thine Is the Glory" F. Mendelssohn - Rev. Jerry Asheim

​​Special Thanks To

Preacher: Rev. Ron Parker Video Contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Connie Adachi, Merrie Bunt, Judy Cayot, Judy Kriege, Susan Jardin, Aeri Lee, Caroline Lee, Chris Poston, Becky Wheat. “Dare to Dance Again” courtesy Dr. Marcia McFee & Chuck Bell, Worship Design Studio.

Video producer: Tai Jokela

Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey

Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt

​​

Credits

Liturgy and Design © 2021 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.

Prayer of Dedication © 2021 enfleshed

Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.

Recent Posts