I have five sisters. In the last six months I have enjoyed sharing time with each one of them in my home away from home in Florida. We explored the beaches, hunted for shark’s teeth, watched movies, enjoyed dinner out, quilted, sewed, shopped and generally had a great time. We share the same parents who were married for almost 60 years. We lived in the same house on the farm our entire lives. We look alike, sound alike, act alike. We are similar in so many ways!
And yet we are different in many ways as well. We live from Montana to Pennsylvania. Some live in town, some live in rural areas. Some work full time, some are retired, some could be retired. Some attend small country churches while others attend large, multi-service churches. Most are grandma’s, one is not. Some have dogs, some do not. One has a cat. Some like to sleep late, others are up at the crack of dawn. We choose different kinds of food, pillows, movies and grocery stores.
When we go to the beach some of us like to get into the water to hunt for shark’s teeth (fossilized) with a sand shovel and a handcrafted sifter (think very large 24×24 made with PVC pipe, screen and a hot pink pool floaty). Others prefer to sit on the beach and sift through piles of shells, ignoring the possibility of finding a fossil.
It’s so easy to focus on the things that make us different when we are together. And the more we focus on the things that make us different, the more we polarize to our particular point of view, the worse it gets. We get snarky and petty and we say things we don’t mean and wish immediately we wouldn’t have said it. It is no fun!
Most of the time we embrace the differences and enjoy our similarities. When we do, we have a wonderful time. We laugh like silly girls until we cry. We enjoy crafting, cooking and playing together. It’s magical.
I see the table where we will gather in a few weeks for our semi-regular mother/sister getaway. They are joining me in Florida for a week of fun in the sun. As I imagine us around the table to craft, play games or share meals, I think about the differences we bring to the table. Humor, faith, talent, contemplation, prayer, perspective, life experiences…and I have to wonder if it is our differences that are actually our strengths.
Of course, our shared life experiences and coming from the same family are the reason we are together at all. But it is our differences that are the glitter on the page. It is what makes us interesting and multi-faceted, three dimensional, rather than just flat paper dolls. But as adults, it is a lot of work to learn to appreciate the differences in the people we choose to call our own. Many times, it is just too difficult; families and friendships disintegrate under the pressure.
There is another family who shared a spiritual father but lived with many differences. They all eagerly looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, but in the meantime, lived very differently. In first century Israel, four groups existed who all claimed Abraham as their father — the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots and the Essenes.
The Pharisees are the most notable group by virtue of being the largest and most mentioned in scripture. They strictly followed the written law in addition to 633 oral laws. They are often found opposing Jesus, trying to trap him in his words. Regarding the Roman occupation of Israel, they remained separate in lifestyle, but lived among their occupiers. Most of Jesus’ disciples were likely from this group.
The Sadducees are the second largest group and also attempted to catch Jesus in his words. This group did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (They would have a problem with Jesus saying he would rise from the dead!) They responded to Roman occupation with accommodation. They adopted the attitude “If you can’t beat them, join them” and were despised as a result by other members of the family. Jesus’ disciple, Matthew, may have been a part of this group as he collected taxes for Rome, skimming a portion off the top for himself. (Mark 2:13-16)
The Zealots are not mentioned very often but they responded to Rome with force. They likely expected the Messiah to do the same – deliver them with shouts of triumph from the oppression of a foreign ruler. In the list of Jesus’ disciples you will see Simon, the Zealot listed (Mark 3:16-19).
The Essenes are the smallest group and rarely mentioned. They responded to Rome by withdrawing. Separating themselves from all of society, they lived in the desert in self-sustaining communities. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered next to the remains of an Essene community. It is possible that John the Baptist lived in such a community before he began his formal ministry. (Mark 1:1-8)
It is apparent that, although these people had many things in common, differences separated them. They built their lives around the things they disagreed upon rather than finding community in what they held in common. And because their focus was on the wrong things, they missed it. Oh, some of them got it– the shepherds, the wise men, the common people, Simeon and Anna. But for the most part, they missed the coming of the Messiah.
Last week in my Advent devotionals I read Isaiah 48:17-18. It says:
This is what the Lords says—your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is good for you and leads you along the paths you should follow. O, that you had listened to my commands! Then you would have had peace flowing like a gentle river and righteousness rolling over you like waves in the sea.”
As I ponder the differences I see in my own family and compare that to the way the religious people of Jesus’ day responded to their differences, I pause. It’s not just in my own family, but in my community that I reflect on how I handle differences. I believe Jesus demonstrated a better way. He never aligned himself with any particular “group” rather showing genuine love and compassion for everyone he encountered. He bridged gaps and brought marginalized individuals close. He wasn’t afraid to touch those with diseases, he held children and he taught women. He healed those from near and those faraway. He fed the hungry, encouraged the timid, embraced the hurting.
Richard Rohr, in his Advent meditations entitled “Preparing for Christmas” says, “The more we can put together, the more that we can ‘forgive’ and allow, the more we can include and enjoy, the more we tend to be living in the Spirit. The more we need to reject, oppose, deny, exclude and eliminate, the more open we are to negative and destructive voices and to our own worst instincts.”
I find that to be as true in my life today as it was in first century Israel. When I can include, allow and enjoy the differences even among my own sisters, the more I enjoy the peace talked about in Isaiah. And the more I need to oppose others, the more I hear my own negative and destructive voice.
It’s hard to believe that it is a choice. But it is one that I make all day long. Some days it’s easier than others. Some days I don’t do well. But it’s a choice I want to make so that I experience waves of peace and righteousness washing over me.
What choice will you make? Can you enjoy the differences of those around you and build a community that is beautiful, genuine and authentic? I pray we can!
Until next time…
May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace.Numbers 6:24-26