A Unified Why

by | Feb 12, 2023


Nancy Myer
“A Unified Why”
February 12, 2023

For my fellow math people out there: Imagine a town of 10,000 people. The town is designed for that many… it has the right number of homes… the right number of schools… the right number of restaurants… the right number of restrooms… for that number of people. Now, in the space of a single day, add 6,579 more people to it. It doesn’t take long for that to become… uncomfortable. That is precisely what happened in the town of Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001. If you happened to see the musical Come From Away, you’ll know a bit about this story…
“When the U.S. shut down its airspace on September 11, Canada offered to house inbound planes flying from Europe. Planes were diverted to fly into Gander International Airport.” The musical is the story of the town of Gander coming together to care for these strangers who showed up on their doorstep. They thought of everything from blankets and pillows and toothbrushes to toys for kids, caring for animals on board the planes, and making sure everybody had plenty to eat.
It is a story of community like no other. Over the course of five days, stranded passengers became friends, strangers learned to trust one another, and the needs of others were placed before one’s own. The Day the World Came to Town is a book that expands on the lives of those involved, both travelers and Gander locals. Harold O’Reilly was the lead supervisor of the Air Traffic Control Center for Gander International. September 11, 2001, happened to be his fiftieth birthday. O’Reilly worked all day, coordinating planes and ensuring there were no accidents on the runway. When he got home that evening, he thought he might find some sort of birthday surprise from his family, despite the day’s events. Instead he found a quiet house. Everyone, including his wife who had gotten caught up in volunteering around town that day, had forgotten his birthday. A fiftieth birthday is a big deal; and yet other things that day seemed more important.
Dr. Rebecca Davis is my seminary Christian Education professor. She taught us about the importance of a proposition statement. A proposition statement is a what/how/why statement that helps you get clear about what you intend to do, how do you intend to do it, and why it is important to do it in the first place. Sometimes I would rather just cut to the chase and write the lesson plan, write the paper, do the thing, whatever it is.
But when I was reading this passage and thinking about the roles of Paul, Apollos, and God, I couldn’t help but think about Paul’s proposition statement. What is his what/how/why in this passage? Paul tells us that he planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. He goes on to say the one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose… for we are God’s servants, working together. Now first let me say that Paul might have failed Dr. Davis’ assignment, because he’s not always known for his clarity, and this is no exception. But let’s take a crack at figuring out his what, how, and why.
Paul tells us what is happening. God is growing something. The how is Paul planting and Apollos watering. But why? That is the question…why is God doing all of this? I wonder if the real project here is that God wants us to work together. Paul does include the phrase “For we are God’s servants, working together.”
Sometimes you have to read between the lines in these letters to figure out what is going on. It seems this church in Corinth was arguing over who was most fit to lead them. Some were loyal to Paul; others claimed Apollos was better. Paul reminds us that we’re not here to take sides. The planting and the watering happen and because they are God-ordained and God-maintained, they lead to bigger and better growth, and even still, to God’s servants working together. God determines whether something grows.
When Paul reminds the Corinthians – and us – that we are servants, working together, the Greek word used for servants is diakonos. If that word sounds familiar, it is where we get the word deacon, though in this case, not the ordained and installed office. Paul is saying that all of us are deacons, working together for a common purpose. Sounds easy enough, but that is hardly the case.
Paul speaks to the Corinthians first as “people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” For Paul, being “of the flesh means living in rivalry and disunity within the church.” Paul claims that as long as they are quarreling with one another, they are “merely human” and he cannot speak to them as “spiritual people.”
Meg and Jarrett invited us to spend the last several weeks exploring the “Do I Have to Believe That?” series. Together we’ve explored predestination, hell and judgment, creationism, original sin, and Jesus as the only way. All of these are issues that could bring – and in some places have brought – division among a people, a church. The Corinthians themselves had been asking difficult theological questions, some of which led to their own divisions. I wonder if Paul is telling them that by saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or any other manner of divisive speech, they are only deepening quarrels and disagreements. They are aligning with their party of choice. They are not living into that calling to be diakonos.
We know something about division, do we not? I mean after all, people have VERY CLEAR IDEAS of which is right when it comes to mayonnaise – Hellman’s or Duke’s… soft drinks – Coke or Pepsi… Christmas trees – real or artificial… and, timely for today, even the entrée at Second Sunday Lunch – fried chicken or BBQ. These are the important things, right?
In all seriousness, so much about our society, our politics, our world is wrapped up in who’s on what side and what belongs to whom. And I’m not saying we should not stand by our convictions. I do think the gospel calls us to stand up for what is right and to live as Jesus calls us to live. But what if there is a more unified way? If you are beginning to wonder if I am going to be the children’s minister who stands up here and tells you the answer is the “Sunday School answer” of “Jesus” or “God loves you,” well, you’re not wrong. But in this case it’s more like “unity in Christ.” There is a common purpose that unites us beyond our minor disagreements.
Simon Sinek has a book called Find your Why. Sinek says, “Your why is the thing you give to the world… A why is the sum total of who you are. You can change the way you navigate the world, you can change what you do, but you can’t change who you are… Your why is the fundamental core of what inspires you; it is the spark that drives you.”
For the strangers who ended up in Gander and for the people who chose to welcome them, things could have gone much differently. The Newfoundlanders could have insisted the stranded passengers remain in the airport. They could have treated them like terrorists. They could have chosen to live by the “every person for themselves” motto. But how far would they have gotten? Instead, they welcomed them into their schools, community centers, and homes. They rolled out the red carpet in every way possible. The fabrics of their individual lives were woven into a beautiful, memorable, unified, life-changing story for every one of them. They set aside their own personal desires and explored what would happen if they came together as human beings who cared for and supported one another.
An American news organization called The Daily Beast calls the Come From Away musical “a celebration of the best of humankind.” And you know what? The “plane people” as those who were grounded in Gander came to be called, represented 100 countries and surely a wide variety of faith traditions. But when it comes right down to it, they were not only caring for their fellow humans. They were teaching us what it means to be Church to one another. They may not have known it, and they may not use those words to describe it, but they were acting on their why.
So what’s our why, Church? Why do we gather here, Sunday after Sunday, singing the hymns of the faith, praying for one another, and listening to the Word proclaimed? Why did we, just a few minutes ago, make promises to ______Laine/Luke_________ to raise her/him in the faith, to tell her/him the stories of Jesus? I know for me, so much of it is about community. The community that we can’t experience when we aren’t gathered together as God’s people. The community that is formed when we wonder, explore, and ask questions together. The community that builds when we laugh, cry, and pray with one another. The community that reminds us, again and again, that we are called by name and we belong not to Paul or Apollos, but to God. The community that challenges us to discern what it means to be Church to each other, both in here and out there. We acknowledge that we are undeserving recipients of God’s grace, we respond in gratitude, and together we figure out what it is that, with God’s help, we can give to the world.
Thinking back to Gander on that September day in 2001, the math seemed impossible. Going from a population of 10,000 to over 16,000 in one day was nothing short of incredible. But they figured it out. And you know what math made it all work? Somehow all of those people, with all of their varying ideas, found a way to put their minds together as ONE. May it be so for us, the ONE body of Christ, guided by the One who leads the way. Amen.