The Power of One
Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4-7
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“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command to you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
Good morning. My name is Kate. I have been a member of United Parish for about eight years. For our summer theme of New Beginnings, I want to tell you about two different parts of my life and how they became woven together.
In one part of my life, I’m on the mathematics faculty at a local university and also work extensively with kids. I hated math as a kid, because I never understood why the numbers worked as they did, and my math teachers were not particularly receptive to my questions, which just made me feel stupid. However, I was blessed as an adult by two women who redirected my career into teaching math some 20 years ago. Amanda, a mathematician, showed me that math is all about patterns and amazing connections and Dot, now another United Parish member whom I met previously as a teaching colleague, showed me what really good teaching looks like.
I was a kid who always had questions and, even after I learned not to ask most of them, I still thought about them. For example, I remember being so confused when I was told that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Weren’t there already lots of different Native American people here? And I wondered, didn’t they already know that they lived here? How do you discover a place where people already live? These were the kinds of questions that usually got me into trouble at school.
The questions I had when I learned about multiplication, however, turned out to be a major turning point for me, not so much in school, but with God. When I learned about multiplication, my teacher showed a group of three pencils and then another group of three pencils, making six pencils. Three pencils twice made six. Two pencils four times made eight pencils. Cool beans! Multiplication was a really good shortcut for adding! No problem with that. But then we got to multiplying by zero. My teacher had said that zero was “nothing”. She said anything multiplied by zero was zero. But wait a minute. If you had three pencils and did nothing to them, where’d they go?? I could make no sense of the idea that doing nothing to the pencils made them disappear.
I had trouble with this for a long time until I finally figured it out one day while on the playground. I watched the class bully push another kid off a swing so he could have it. The kid who was pushed off didn’t even try to fight; he was much smaller and just stood there as the bully laughed at him and then slowly walked away. He sat down in a corner of the sandbox and just seemed to shrink. In one tremendous flash of insight, I finally grasped the concept of multiplying by zero. Zero was not nothing. It was something. And something really important.
In watching a bully, I finally understood zero and in thinking about zero, I finally understood bullies. And grownups who make you feel stupid for asking questions. Bullies could make whomever they touched disappear, just like zero. If I asked questions and was treated with scorn or annoyance, something inside me shriveled into nothingness. And, thus, I learned to be silent and invisible. That was how multiplying by zero worked. If you acted like a zero, you made other people disappear.
I worked out the flipside to this at Sunday School, where they said that God loved everyone, no matter who they were or where they were from. So I decided that God must be a one. Any number multiplied by one becomes more what it already is. And one is the only factor shared by every number. That made sense to me because the Lord’s Prayer said that God was “forever and ever” — infinite — just like numbers, and “one” is the only factor found in every single number, even the prime numbers that don't really fit in with the other numbers. So, if people were all different but all still had the oneness of God in them – even the people that didn't fit in so easily – then God must have wanted us all to be different but still have God in common so God multiplied us all by one. If there is only one God then this works for people of all different faiths. This was my childlike way of beginning to wrestle with the rudimentary questions of God, good and evil and the dilemmas posed by making choices.
My theology isn’t much more sophisticated today. I believe there are “ones” who touch other people with love and respect and make people more who they are and happy to be who they are. The people who have lost their own sense of oneness and become “zeros” tend to make other people disappear - physically, emotionally, spiritually, or all of the above. However, with an additional 50 years of living, I’ve realized that very few of us are purely “ones” or solely “zeros”. Even though I have tried to always be a one, there are times in my life when I have acted like a zero. I think most of us are a mix of both so it is really the choosing to act as a “one” or “zero” that becomes the issue. But as human beings, we seem to have an astonishing ability to live with great contradiction. Power and greed can make almost anything disappear and we are quite skilled at manipulating propaganda to make “ones” look like “zeros” and “zeros” look like “ones.” Five minutes with the evening news or a history book can provide graphic examples. Zero is powerful throughout history. Those who behave as zeros make not only people but also civil rights and justice disappear.
For me, this underscores the importance of education and critical thinking skills. The passage from Deuteronomy commands us to teach our children about God’s love and to be examples to them. But just as one is taught, zero can be taught. I’m reminded of the song from the musical South Pacific about “You’ve got to be taught, to hate and fear … you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Many children are taught through neglect or abuse, bullying, racial or gender prejudice, war and so on. It is so important that we create safety and oneness in our classrooms and communities so that children can grow up feeling loved and supported. If they don’t find that at home, we can try to make sure they find it at school and at church. This makes me think of Fredrick Douglas who said that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” When we interact with children as “ones”, we build resilience. Think about how you felt when you were criticized, belittled, or mocked versus how productive and creative you have been when encouraged and appreciated.
Another part of my life has been and continues to be spent in social justice work. I have just returned from a week-long summer institute for educators at the Keene State College Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Throughout that week, I kept making notes about things I wanted to say in this homily. At the Institute, we talked about root causes of genocide and how it always comes down to the dominant group feeling insecure and threatened that they will lose their position of power. Thus, in the extreme of genocide, this results in a belief that the only way for the dominant group to maintain their position of power and privilege is to eradicate the other groups who are perceived as threatening. Genocide scholars refer to this as “zero-sum” thinking, whereby the dominant group feels that if they do not act with violence – and violence that they perceive as defensive and even righteous - they themselves will face imminent erasure as a group. Genocide is the ultimate multiplication by zero.
But during that week at the Cohen Center, I also saw the profound power of one. The director of the institute is a man of great commitment, humor and scholarship. He is also one who openly offers love and support and his willingness to show his own vulnerability creates a safe space for other people to do so. I watched people find courage, make connections, speak truths. I also realized that part of his gift of oneness is that of a healer.
A Holocaust survivor, then a five-year-old Hungarian Jew who was hidden, alone, in a barn for six months said that, “Because of one peasant woman, I was saved. I have four children, and now grandchildren. Because of one woman.” Her testimony gave me a more gut-level understanding of words from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” We also heard the story of an elderly theologian who is the son of a perpetrator, who speaks with a gentle voice and has eyes that look directly into your soul. He told us about a time when he was part of a panel presentation and he was hesitant to share his story because Holocaust survivors were in the audience and he was concerned about how they would feel hearing from someone whose father was a Nazi. Afterward, a woman, with numbers tattooed on her arm, grasped his shoulders, looked him directly in the eyes and told him “You must speak.” And he has. Both in their 80’s, these two individuals offer their stories to help people understand what happens in a genocide and how it has affected their lives and who they have become.
Another man who spoke with us is a survivor of the Bosnian Genocide, who, as a teenager, spent four years in refugee camps. He left there a young man who believed that only revenge would heal his hatred and his rage. However, he experienced a personal transformation while participating in interethnic dialogue and trauma healing sessions. He went on to earn a degree in Conflict Transformation, then returned to Bosnia and founded the Center for Peacebuilding. Since then, he has worked all over the world in peacebuilding and reconciliation. A calm, compassionate peace radiates from him and he freely shares that with everyone fortune enough to meet him.
Amazing people, all three of them. They all had horrible zeros done to them but each has transformed those experiences into oneness. After a particularly powerful and profound day that week, I was thinking about this when I had another of those flashes of insight. Zero as an exponent. So an exponent is just a notation that means, take the number and multiply it by itself that many times. Three with an exponent of two – sometimes we say that as “3 raised to the power of 2” or “3 squared” - is 3 x 3. Six to the power of four is 6 x 6 x 6 x 6. Simple enough. But it gets tricky when you raise a number to the power of zero. Any number raised to the power of zero, is not zero, as you might expect it to be. A number raised to the power of zero, equals one. And I won’t make you listen to why that is mathematically true… Five to the power of zero, is one. Eight hundred and fifty two raised to the power of zero, is one. So zero does not always have to lead to zero; it can lead back to one. The pain of zero can still be a part of your past without preventing you from living your life as a one. Any number raised to the power of zero is one. It’s the definition of redemption.
I have rarely experienced such a feeling of strength and authenticity flowing between people as I did during this summer institute. A group of people who were mostly strangers, over a period of six days, evolved into a powerful community of ones who will take that oneness and offer it to their students and colleagues. At our closing ceremony, a participant said, “I feel enriched and supported in being who I am.” Multiplied by one! In his closing remarks, the director commented that “The Cohen Center was founded by one man’s vision and you carry it on.” The power of one just kept coming up.
Here at United Parish, I have also experienced the amazing power of “one” as I have watched people give so generously of their time and talents, both to people in our church community and the wider world community. Working in prison reform, affordable housing, civil rights, climate change, conversations of reconciliation; the list goes on and on. People in this community of faith, whom I love and respect, make me want to be my best self. “Zero” diminishes, destroys, makes things disappear. But the oneness of God blossoms, expands, and builds bridges.
This understanding of zero and one is also reflected in a well-known story from a Native American culture. For me, the first set of the words in the story exactly describes “one”; the second set of words describes “zero”. This story is an elegant summary of the choice we have, whether we will choose to multiply by one or by zero. The story goes like this:
An old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. The one is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
He continued, “The other is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, greed, arrogance, self-pity, resentment, lies, false pride, and ego. The same fight is going on inside you,” he told his grandson, “and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
His grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”
This is the oneness that can guide us when we feed and nurture it in ourselves and in others. It is the only way that I can really comprehend God in this world that seems daily more overrun with zeros. God is the oneness in all of us, that embraces all of us, that works through all of us. I know that I interpret the scripture “go forth and multiply” a bit differently than it was intended in Genesis but I would encourage all of us to go forth and multiply - by one.