July 29, 2018

Counting On God, I: ONE

Passage: Deuteronomy 6:4–9; Ephesians 4:1–16

Click here to listen to this sermon.


There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,
who is above all and through all and in all.  —Ephesians 4:3–6

As long as anybody can remember, human beings have attached mystical, sacred significance to certain numbers. For instance, the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, 12, 40, and 50 pop up over and over again in the Bible.

There is something special about those numbers, so Jo and Katie and I are going to preach a sermon series about numbers; there will be seven sermons in the series; even the number of sermons is magical.

I just noticed this, but the first four prime numbers are all magical in the Bible. I don’t know if that is significant or not; ask Jo or Katie.

And if you think this ancient superstition or magical thinking belongs to a pre-scientific time in the childhood of the race, think again.

Does anybody know what ‘triskaidekaphobia’ is? Fear of the number 13. A couple of theories about why the number 13 is unlucky. There were 13 people at Jesus’ Last Supper; Judas was the 13th to sit down with Jesus.

There are 12.4 lunar cycles in a solar year, so that short thirteenth month at the end of the year is incomplete, anemic, feeble, maybe dangerous. So in America, 13 is an unlucky number, except at Colgate University. Ask a Colgate graduate why.

In some Asian languages, the word for the number four sounds like the word for ‘death,’ so in Asia, they have tetraphobia—fear of the number four. You would never bring four flowers or four cookies to a person in the hospital, and you would never play the Beatles at your wedding reception because they’re a quartet (I made that up).

In certain Asian countries, the mortality rate jumps 20% on the fourth day of the month, not because the superstition is true, the theory goes, but because the number 4 stresses Asian people out.

As a result of the confluence of western and eastern cultures in Asia, many buildings not only lack a 13th floor because of triskaidekaphobia, but also any floor with a four in it, because of tetraphobia, so in some buildings, there is no fourth floor, no 13th floor, no 14th floor, no 24th, no 34th, all the 40-something floors are missing, also 54, 64, 74, 84, and 94.  So in a building where the top floor is called the 100th floor, there are really only 80 floors.

So this magical thinking about sacred numbers is not an ancient superstition; it is very much with us to this day. The first of the special numbers is 1, of course.

For your Jewish friends, that passage from Deuteronomy I read a moment ago is the most important and precious and beloved and repeated passage from the Hebrew scriptures. It is the core confession, the terse précis, of the entire Jewish faith.

It’s called the Shema, because that is the first word of the Hebrew text: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Teach them to your children. Bind them to your hand.”

The Lord your God is one God. Today we take God’s singularity so for granted because 40% of the world’s people belong to one of the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But actually, the thesis that there is but one God is both late and small.

Belief in many gods is way older and earlier than belief in one God, and even today among the world’s religions, monotheism is a minority report.

Most Native American tribes believe in many gods. By some reports, Hinduism boasts 33 million gods. Buddhists have no gods, or, to put it differently, if you’re a Buddhist you’re welcome to your gods, but they don’t say anything, and they don’t do anything, and they don’t mean anything, and the whole point of Buddhism is to liberate you from your dependence upon gods.

In their early days even the radically monotheistic Jews believed in many gods. Certain passages in ancient Semitic literature even suggest that Yahweh had a wife: her name was Asherah.

The radical monotheism of the Shema in Judaism is post-exilic, which means that it did not solidify and win the day till after the exile in Babylon in the sixth century BC.

Have you ever heard the word henotheism?  Henotheism is probably the oldest religious thinking in the human family and across vast swaths of religiosity still the default setting.

Henotheism is the belief that there is one Chief God who has many demi-gods working for him, or her. In Henotheism, Olympus is crowded; heaven is full of divinities.

The Greek pantheon is essentially henotheistic.  There is one Big God; Zeus is the CEO God, but Zeus has a whole corporate team of lesser gods working for him in the C-Suite.

Poseidon is his oceanographer, and Dionysus his sommelier, and Ares is the Brigadier General of his armies and Aphrodite his million-dollar matchmaker, his Match.com, his e-harmony, his Tinder.

It’s too complicated to get into just now, but as Judaism grew up and matured and then later birthed Christianity and Islam, the one-God thesis won the day.

I guess the thinking goes: if there are any divinities and demons and principalities and powers, if there is any invisible but palpable infinity beyond, above, beneath, and within the world we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands, it has to be just the One Unmoved Mover who fires the burning suns and spins the flying spheres, right?

If there are any gods, there has to be only one.  We take that for granted. But the danger of radical monotheism is that it rarely leads to monohumanism. That is to say, monotheism divides rather than unites.

None of the three great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are very welcoming faiths, are they? They tend to divide and exclude. They get arrogant in their distinct certitudes and insist that their understanding of God is exclusively accurate.

That’s how that religion professor at Wheaton College fell afoul of her Board and Administration when she insisted that Muslims and Christians and Jews all worship the same God.  “Heaven forfend!” said the evangelicals.  “If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.”

Monotheism is inherently inhospitable to the other and the different. And so the Nazi’s persecute the Jews because the Jews don’t see God through Jesus of Nazareth, and the Jews in turn persecute the Palestinians because Arabs are not the Chosen People. And round and round it goes until the human family is torn apart.

Monotheism rarely leads to monohumanism, which is just my made-up word for talking about the one human family—we’re all children of God.

So in his letter to the Church at Ephesus, Paul is just riffing on the ancient Shema: “The Lord your God is ONE God,” says Paul, but then he expands his point by a country mile: “There is ONE body and ONE Spirit, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE birth, ONE God and Father of us all, who is ABOVE all, and THROUGH all, and IN all.”

Because there is but ONE God, there is but ONE human family, all of us children of God. Radical monotheism leads to radical monohumanism.

Paul is writing this TO the Greek-speaking, Gentile Christians in Ephesus, but he is writing it FOR his Jewish Christian brothers and sisters, who were trying to erect this towering wall between the Jewish and Gentile parts of the Church.  ONE human family because ONE holy divinity who is above all and through all and in all.

It’s so sad when our belief in God’s singularity divides rather than unites us. You know, of course, that Muslims have their own version of the Shema. It’s called the Shahada and it is to Islam what the Shema is to Judaism; it is the first of the five pillars of the Muslim faith.

The Shahada: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” When Muhammad wrote that he was cribbing straight from Moses.  One God, only it’s not Yahweh; it’s Allah.

And that’s what those terrorists were shouting when they crashed those giant jets into the World Trade Center on 9/11. “You are not proper members of God’s family” is what they were trying to tell us.  “You deserve to die!”

Last July while visiting my daughter in Connecticut I saw the most wonderful play on Broadway. Has anyone seen Come from Away?

After those planes hit the Twin Towers on September 11, with those terrorists reciting the Shahada, the FAA instantly grounded every domestic flight in the United States; wherever they were, they went straight down to the nearest airport.

United States airspace was closed for the first time in history. When the towers fell, 500 international flights were in the air on the way to the United States from all over the world. They were all diverted from American airspace.

About half of them were still close enough to their points of origin that they could just do a 180 and go back to where they came from in London or Paris.

But 250 of those flights, carrying something like 40,000 passengers, landed in Canada—Halifax, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto; 38 flights landed at Gander Airport in Newfoundland.

When Gander Airfield opened in 1938, it was the largest airport in the world, and one of the busiest, because until the 1960's you couldn’t jump the pond in a single hop from anywhere in the US to the UK or Europe without refueling.

Since the 1960's, Gander, Newfoundland, has been a sleepy place. The population of Newfoundland is just 500,000 on this gigantic island.

On September 11, 2001, the population of Gander was a little under 10,000 islanders, and then 6,759 passengers, nine cats, eleven dogs, and two great apes got off those 38 planes, almost doubling the population, and the Newfoundlanders went to work instantly and practically didn’t sleep for five days till the last of those almost 7,000 visitors finally left for their original destinations in the United States.

They put cots and air mattresses on every inch of floor in the town’s schools, gyms, and community centers. They made thousands and thousands and thousands of sandwiches; people started referring to Gander as Casserole City.

The locals started calling the visitors ‘the plane people.’ The locals invited the plane people into their homes for showers and a bed.

For security reasons, the passengers were not allowed to access their checked luggage the whole time they were in Gander, so pharmacists at the two Gander drug stores worked around the clock to fill prescriptions; they called all over the world to get them authorized. That was fun, trying to interpret 30 or 40 foreign languages. Or maybe Amoxicillin is Amoxicillin and Ritalin is Ritalin in every language.

Hannah, one of the plane people from New York, befriends Buelah, a Newfoundlander.  Hannah teases Beulah. “Beulah, why are Newfoundlanders so bad at “Knock Knock” jokes.  Beulah says, “I dunno, Hannah, why?” Hannah says, “Let’s try it. I’ll be the Newfoundlander.  You start.”

Beulah says, “Knock, Knock.” Hannah says, “Come on in, the door’s open.” That’s a terrible “Knock, Knock” joke, but it’s a wonderful way to live. When they left, the plane people never paid a dime for any of that lavish hospitality.

In those schools fitted out for the plane people, there is a woman in a hijab, and a Jordanian man with his forehead pressed to the ground five times a day at his prayers in Arabic, and Indians singing Hindu songs in Sanskrit, and Jews chanting prayers in Hebrew, and Christians singing hymns in English and German.

A gay couple wonders if they should admit who they are in small-town Canada in the first year of the twenty-first century, but nobody cares. “My cousin’s gay,” someone offers. “So is my grandson,” somebody else cheerfully joins in.

So that’s why Gander is one of the few places outside the United States that was honored with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center.  The people of that town were such a striking antithesis to those haters who went down shouting “God is one.”

Claude Elliott, Gander’s mayor, says, “What we consider the simplest thing in life is to help people. You’re not supposed to look at people’s color, or religion, or sexual orientation. You look at them as people.”[1]

Welcome to the friends who have come from away
Welcome to the locals who have always said they’d stay
If you’re comin’ from Toledo or you’re comin’ from Taipei
Because we come from everywhere, we all come from away:
Welcome to the Rock![2]

Radical monohumanism.  Or, as St. Paul puts it: “One body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” The Power of One.


Facts and stories about Gander come from:

Tom Brokaw, “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” a documentary for NBC News.

Petula Dvorak, “On 9/11, a Tiny Canadian Town Opened Its Runways and Heart to 7,000 Stranded Travelers,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2016.

Katherine Lackey, “An Oasis of Kindness on 9/11,” USA Today, September 8, 2017.

Dave Quinn, “The Inspiring True 9/11 Kindness in Come from Away, the Broadway Hit Justin Trudeau and Ivanka Trump Saw Together,” People, March 17, 2017.

Thomas Schulman, “Stuck in Gander, Newfoundland,” The New Yorker, March 27, 2017.

Wikipedia.com, an article: “Operation Yellow Ribbon.”


[1]Quoted by Katherine Lackey, “An Oasis of Kindness on 9/11,” USA Today, September 8, 2017.

[2]Come from Away, a musical by David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff, 2013. The spoken dialogue and song lyrics are often direct quotes from interviews with the residents of Gander and the plane people.