The Extravagant Gift of Unity

At the Conference & Retreat Center, we have just concluded our summer midweek series. For six weeks, we gathered on Wednesday nights for a delicious meal, a nature talk, and a short (Mount Olivet style) worship service replete with exceptional music and inspiring messages. This past Wednesday we feasted on roasted turkey, rosemary infused mashed potatoes, green beans from our garden, and a pumpkin pie cheesecake. Our site naturalist Dan Kahl gave us a tour of the retreat center gardens, and Justin Staebell inspired us with rich baritone renditions of “If My People Will Pray” and “I’ll Walk with God.”

The music, the food, and the beauty of the land inspire, encourage, and renew those in attendance. And so, too, does our fellowship with each other. Conversations throughout the evening gladden the heart, especially after a long hiatus of not being able to gather in-person.

I remember how, at end of our summer midweek series two years ago – my first summer in the role of Executive Director – I experienced a surprising sense of loss. Our summer congregation, as I had come to think of it, dispersed. I thought that I wouldn’t see them in this place overlooking the fields, prairies, and Chub Lake for another year. Little did I know then that it would be two years before we gathered again, face to face. So, when I stood to welcome everyone back to summer midweeks, just six weeks ago now, the first words that came to my mind were: “How good and pleasant it is when siblings dwell together in unity.” How good and pleasant it is when we gather to eat, learn, and worship. How good and pleasant it is, I said, to see your unmasked smiles and to hear your voices raised in song together. Each week as I stood at the lectern, these words from Psalm 133 echoed in my heart and became part of our summer refrain.

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life forevermore.

This little psalm is known as a Psalm of Ascent. It is part of a collection of 15 poetic prayers that pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festivals. Jerusalem is elevated about ½ mile above sea level so it was an uphill journey. Once in Jerusalem, the pilgrims might climb further to the Temple Mount—the place where God promised to meet them. They converged from multiple starting points, walked together to the same destination, cheerfully singing this psalm.

Poems, prayers, and songs—like this one—help us to enter time and space differently. Think of choirs processing up the aisles at the beginning of worship services, signaling that the time has come to worship God. We fall silent. We feel awe. We become attuned to the One who is both with us and beyond us.

Or think about the songs echoing in buses as kids head to summer camp. Girl Scouts singing, “Princess Pat” or “The Littlest Worm” (both to the same tune). There are the songs from Vacation Bible School and our own Mount Olivet Cathedral of the Pines, favorites remembered for years: “I am the resurrection and the life.” And then, as they depart, going back down the proverbial mountain, they sing together again: “I will not be afraid.”

Pilgrims, of one sort or another, build camaraderie as they sing together and pray together especially outdoors. Their harmonizing attests that, in all their difference, they belong to and with each other—just like all the plants and animals around them. Each is a precious creature of God. Each person is a beloved child of God made for sharing love, peace, joy, and hope (not alone but together, in community).

“How good and pleasant it is when kindred dwell together in unity,” writes the psalmist. One of my colleagues recently shared a story of being with family he hadn’t seen in many years. Siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, all enjoying each other, at ease in one another’s presence. Laughter filled the air; gladness filled their hearts; and I suspect wine filled their glasses.

Another colleague recently shared a very different story: her family has weathered ideological disagreements for years but now is split into two distinct camps, those who have gotten vaccinated and those who have not and will not. The stakes are high after 18 months of a pandemic that has not yet ended, and the chasm between them feels impassable. Anger breaks through the surface of politeness.

Perhaps all of us can relate, for one reason or another. The divides in our families, our communities, our government, and perhaps even our churches seem as though they have become more pronounced, more severe, maybe even permanent. Perhaps we find ourselves longing and praying for the pleasantness of unity one day and feeling completely deflated by its apparent absence another.

In either case (or anything in between), Psalm 133 shouts its celebration of unity. Dwelling together in unity is good and pleasant. Unity, harmony, lifegiving peace: these qualities are central to the goodness of creaturely life.

Two of the great Protestant theologians of the 20th century, one Reformed and one Lutheran, Karl Barth and Deitrich Bonhoeffer, both affirmed this basic spiritual truth: true humanity is co-humanity. To be truly and fully human means to be truly and fully together. To be human is to exist with each other, not without each other. It is to exist for each other, not against each other. It is to exist on behalf of each other, not merely for our own selves.

Like a good poet, the psalmist uses two similes to celebrate the life-giving beauty of unity. But the meaning is likely lost on us. Personally, I recoil at the first image: copious amounts of olive oil running down someone’s bushy beard?! Not appealing. Of course, this kind of jarring disconnect happens when reading and praying texts written thousands of years ago in a completely different land and culture. A little historical understanding helps. (And by the way, this approach might be replicated when trying to relate to human beings who seem as bizarre or unlikeable as this text.)

In the ancient Near East–with its dry, dusty, desert, land–olive oil was used to replenish skin and hair. Giving olive oil to your guests was an act of generous hospitality. Pouring oil on their heads after they entered your home: this was a warm, caring, intimate welcome.

Oil not only signifies warmth and hospitality. It also is a sign of God’s presence and God’s blessing. Aaron was the High Priest. Oil would have been poured on his head as a symbol of God’s anointing, of God’s presence with him, of God empowering him in his calling.

Put another way, it is so good when kindred dwell together in unity that it is like a wide and gracious welcome after a long, weary journey, and it like the extravagant presence of God’s Spirit that empowers us to do more than we could ever imagine.

The second image used by the psalmist is that of “dew,” the early morning water droplets covering a dusty earth. Dew refreshes and renews and sustains. As one Old Testament scholar explains, “Mt. Hermon, located some 125 miles north of Jerusalem, was known for its abundant dew. And in Palestine, which saw little rainfall between the months of April and October, dew was an important commodity. Without the nightly accumulation of dew, the land would be parched and dry for many months out of the year.”

This is a shockingly delightful image: a miraculous amount of dew rolling down a mountain and traveling 125 miles. Dwelling together in unity is an extravagant, unexpected gift.

Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth once said, “God’s love always throws a bridge over a chasm.” God’s love bridges the greatest divides between us, and there are many of them if we are honest. This means that unity is first and foremost God’s work. The author of the New Testament letter to the Colossians put it this way: “In Christ, all things hold together” (1:17).

All means all. And kindred, here in this psalm, is a very expansive term.

Who dwells together in unity? The Hebrew word for kindred certainly includes the pilgrims who journeyed to Jerusalem. It includes all Jews who worship God together. But it also includes those who aren’t Jews, that is, Gentiles who would be included in the Abrahamic covenant. It includes the Edomites and others considered outsiders and enemies.

Psalm 133 isn’t talking about people who are siblings on the basis of biology or nationality, gender or sexuality, age or race or political affiliation, religion or church membership. Kinship is reconfigured by God to go beyond this, to include all people. Because God is the creator and redeemer (not of some) but of all. The beauty and goodness of unity flows like abundant oil and water. It cannot be contained or limited geographically, demographically, or by any other barrier or human construct.

Psalm 133 is poetic prayer that can be sung in our hearts whether we see unity (or its opposite) in our churches, families, neighborhoods, communities, and world. The goodness and beauty of unity is God’s gift, God’s promise, and God’s work. It’s our job to see unity where it exists and to participate in it; to hope and pray for its fulfillment; and to celebrate it with singing and eating and laughing together in the presence of God.

This blog is a shortened version of the Sunday radio program, Faith Alive, posted on Aug 8. To listen to the full program, visit Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church.

Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


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