Behold, how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! It is like the precious oil running down upon Aaron’s beard.
This is one of my favorite lines from the Psalms, this promise that it is very good and pleasant to live together in unity. For, as human beings, we are built for community, to be communal beings, to live together in harmony, no matter how hard that may be.
Today we cannot appreciate fully the significance of the anointing of the priests and kings of the Old Testament, or of the unity that came as God’s people gathered together from their scattered regions to observe the feasts. We tend to see something unpleasant about the idea of oil running down us, but in reality, the occasion spoke of something fantastically beautiful in the sight of God and of something that spoke volumes of truth to the people.
The oil used in anointing not only provided a sight to behold, but it also had many wonderful, fragrant ingredients. Exodus 30 tells us the oil included myrrh, cinnamon, sweet calamus, and cassia, in an olive oil base. These ingredients were considered extremely precious. Exodus continues to reveal that Aaron and all the high priests were anointed with this oil. At his consecration the high priest symbolized unity—he bore on his breastplate the names of all twelve tribes, so when the oil depicting the grace of God was poured on him, it “flowed on” all the tribes. The time for unity had come.
When David wrote this Psalm, it was not a time when unity was taken for granted. Wars and killings were taking place and there was great division over the land. People were trying to dethrone David, and unease was in every breath taken. So he may have been writing it as a wish, a plea to the people about how good things could be, if only they would live in unity, or a prayer to God… oh God, help us, let your Kin-dom come on earth as it is in heaven, co-existing in unity with each one, Your grace flowing down upon us all.
But those of us who have ever lived with someone else know how very challenging it can be. How many of you have struggled in the last months living with someone, spending more with them than you thought you would have to as we have been staying close to home (please don’t raise your hands though, as they may be sitting next to you!). I know, in my life, times when I have had housemates or lived with others, there have always been times that are really hard. Someone else’s habits begin to get on my nerves, their insensitivity to my needs wear me down, their messiness is left for me to clean……. And all these things as my habits and messes and insensitivity do the same to them!
When I was in seminary I lived in the intentional community on campus, a beautiful old eight bedroom house. We covenanted to live together, to take turns with the chores, to come together for worship twice a week, to eat together when time allowed, and to be a support of one another and to pray for each other. And mostly, it worked well! There were times though that someone would push one too many buttons…. Chores undone for days, too much noise late at night, inviting friends over several evenings in a row, money not paid into the grocery kitty on time, the heat turned up too high for too long while windows were left open. As these things happened you could feel the energy in the house shift, the tensions begin to run high, the passive aggressive notes left or snide comments made. With our schedules, we often passed by one another quickly, maybe bumping into someone to eat breakfast at the dining room table before heading off to class, or crossing on the steep steps up the hill to get to class, but not really to check in. But when we gathered together to worship, we always caught up with one another, a how is it with your soul type question, and 9 times out of 10, the ‘culprit’ would apologize for what they had done or left undone, and, often, explain what their struggle had been…. A sister feeling suicidal so spending time and energy on the phone with them, a paper due that was causing a lot of stress, a work schedule that had changed last minute to include more shifts to cover for a sick colleague, an unexpected car expense. And with this vulnerability and apology and a time to pray with and for one another, the balance was nearly always restored and the tensions evaporated.
I am a monk with a Benedictine Methodist monastery. We live dispersed, scattered across the country with people from coast to coast, and have opportunities to gather by phone to pray 4 or 5 times a day. Once a year we come together physically for a retreat, and each time we do this there a conversation about how beautiful and good it would be to have a physical home where some of us could actually live together… and this may be a possibility in the future. We are mentored by a sister from Saint Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joe, and often have speakers from there at our retreat. And one thing we hear over and over when we ask about the joys and challenges of monastic life is how beautiful and how hard it is to live together! It is always lifted up as a highlight of their life and the hardest thing they ever have to do. Just to live under the same roof in community. And this is so true. For how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity!
I think what can make community harder, whether we live together or just come together on a Sunday morning, is the fact that we don’t always get to choose who belongs and who doesn’t. As Christians we are told to love our neighbors, love our enemies, pray for those who have done us wrong, to welcome the least of these. What a challenge! One that even Jesus needed to learn and practice. For in the Gospel reading today we are told of an outsider who came to him asking for help. Both a woman…. And therefore considered less than, and a Canaanite woman at that, who dared to come before Jesus asking for help for her daughter. Up until this point in his ministry, Jesus had been almost exclusively with the Jewish community, at least as far as we know. There may have been others in the crowd as he fed the five thousand, but the only individual story dealing with an outsider was this passage from Matthew 8 when a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” In this instance Jesus did not hesitate to offer healing, but now he is faced again with a similar situation.
The Canaanite’s daughter is at home as the woman comes before Jesus, begging for help. The Canaanites have long been seen as idol worshipers, enemies of the Jews, a peoples to be fearful of as they set snares to trap the good Israelites. And she has the audacity to approach Jesus and ask him to heal her daughter. His disciples tell him to send her away, and, after Jesus tries to ignore her, in her persistence she keeps asking. Then Jesus tries to dismiss her, saying, I am only here for the House of Israel. But she stays and answers him. Even the dogs beneath the table get the crumbs, she says. I know I am not worthy, but give me the smallest part of your ministry, a tiny crumb of your healing.
Something shifts in Jesus in that moment as he begins to see his calling crack wide open. He is, indeed, there for the House of Israel. But that’s not all. He has been sent to help all. No exceptions. Each human is worthy of his attention, love, teachings, healings. Jews and Gentiles alike. Even the Canaanites. For how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! Not easy, as we are always changed by community, but good and pleasant as we allow that change and growth to shape us!
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, this is reinforced with these words, Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my the human race you did it to me.’
When we see all others, but especially those that the world see as the least of these, as worthy of our friendship is when we are called most to radically hospitality and inclusivity. The least of these in our world may speak with a different accent, come from a lower social economic class, arrive from another country, have a history of drug use or violence, be from a different generation, have a different sexual orientation. However we define the other. When we see the these others and welcome them into our midst, when we can truly live together in unity, when we allow ourselves to be changed by encounters with the other, then it will truly be good and pleasant, then we will feel God’s grace flowing over us like the oil on Aaron’s head, then the hard work of living together will come to fruition. And it’s work that is ongoing, allowing the differences and annoyances to be brought before God to transform them, to pray with one another, to serve with one another, to share with vulnerability and to build trust. It is both the best thing about coming together and the most challenging!
So as we look around this sanctuary and see others who are kind of like us, let us not fall into the trap of thinking this is enough. Let us open our hearts to practice real community, welcome all, to reach out to others, to seek out the least of these and find ways to see them, to hear them, to stop calling them ‘them’ and, instead, be in unity, calling us ‘us’. This might look like the Somali woman in the store, the Black kid playing basketball, the Latinos hanging out in the park, the Trump or Biden neighbor, the homeless superman in St. Cloud or the deaf neighbor. Offer a kind word to them, a smile in your eyes, a quarter for their parking meter or a pair of clean, dry socks for their feet. See if you can begin to be in relationship with our neighbors who may be different from you, remembering that everyone is our neighbor and all we share this planet with are those we live with. And watch how it changes you! It is the greatest blessing and the hardest thing we are called to do… but how very good and pleasant it is when we live together in unity! And we know that the grace of God’s blessing will flow over us all as we learn to do this.