Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Finding Common Ground

According to Mark’s Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). Simply substitute “preaching” or “teaching” or some other common present day Christian activity for “casting out demons,” and we could well imagine a modern day Christian saying something similar. These days, it seems that Christians are having more and more difficulty uniting around common endeavors, let alone with other religious traditions and social groups.

In John’s Gospel Jesus prays that we all will be one, and in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus is always expanding the borders of God’s kingdom, including those that the religious establishment had marginalized and disenfranchised.

In response to the inquiry of the disciples, Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39–40). Jesus appears to be saying that whoever engages in work that advances the common good, that promotes healing and liberation is working for God’s kingdom.

The unity of God’s kingdom is in no shape or form a unity of uniformity. It is a unity in diversity. Serving one another within the human family, working for the common good around matters of peace, equality, inclusion, restorative and distributive justice for the disadvantaged, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the pursuit of the common good has the potential to bring us together  like nothing else.

The newscaster Charles Kuralt, tells a beautiful story in his book A Life on the Road. It was the spring that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and several American cites had erupted in flames. In June, Robert Kennedy was murdered. Kuralt had known them both. He was feeling depressed about the future of the country. Then, in July, in Reno, Nevada, he ran across a woman named Pat Shannon Baker.

Pat was a young white woman, the mother of three children. The night Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she sat up late feeling compelled to do something. But what? She remembered a vacant lot she passed every day in the city. It would make a nice park, she thought. She went to see her councilman, who talked about their strained budget and the difficulty of passing a bond issue. So Pat Baker went to see people in the African-American community around the lot, and she went to see garden supply companies and cement companies and the heads of construction and contracting companies. Pretty soon, her idea was also their idea.

At seven-thirty on a Friday morning, a time when many Reno residents had not yet stirred from their houses, a crowd began gathering on that vacant lot. By eight-thirty, 2,000 tons of topsoil was being spread by front-end loaders operated by heavy-equipment operators not used to working for free. As Kuralt watched, he could hardly believe his eyes. 

He watched a school custodian, a roofer, a garage mechanic, and an unemployed teenager digging a ditch together. A junior high school boy assigned to saw two-by-fours to serve as cement forms sawed all day in the hot sun as if his life depended on it. A little girl carried water to the workers. Some Coastguardsmen, Marines, and Seabees came by and helped. By noon, cement was laid for a double tennis court. A basketball court was completed by nightfall. Dozens of people worked through the night.

On Saturday morning, a crowd of several hundred people showed up for work, black and white, young and old. An eighty-four year old man who came to watch spent the entire afternoon helping to plant trees. By Saturday night the lawn had been sown and on Sunday morning a sprinkler system was turned on. By Sunday afternoon the park was finished, complete with walks and benches and trees and playing courts and grass.

They named it the Pat Baker Park and asked her if she would like to say something. She said, “This was a great, big, black and white thing.”

Kuralt went back twenty years later. He said the grass was neatly trimmed and the trees had grown tall and leafy. People were sitting on the park benches in the shade of the trees. Kids were playing on the basketball court.

He thought back to the weekend the park was built. He remembered an elderly African-American, leaning on his shovel, looking around at what they had done. He said that this was the best thing that ever happened since he had come to Reno. Not the park itself. That was good, but he was talking about the building of it.  

We are our brother and sister’s keeper. We all share the divine life of God, regardless of what we call it or name it. This Goodness and Grace that is at the core of all reality unites us as one. Whether we acknowledge the Divine or not, and irrespective of the names we employ, in God we all live and move and have our being, for we are all God’s offspring (Acts 17:28). Our commitment to the common good enables us to find common ground that reminds us that we are all family.


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