1 Corinthians 1:10-18
It is not easy being a person of faith in this time. I would say this is the case in many different ways. We hear about Christians being judgmental, we hear about Christians being really stupid. We hear about Christians doing really dumb things, and personally, I find myself embarrassed by many of the other people of faith who call themselves Christians. For example, you’ve probably all heard about the pastors in California who sued the governor for his “shelter in place” ruling because they feel this restricts their ability to worship together. This kind of non-feeling, refusal to care for the people in their communities and the people around the world embarrasses me and makes me afraid to call myself a Christian in some places. And this behavior is frankly just the least of the embarrassing things that people of faith have said, done, or proclaim in the name of a loving God that I find horrifying, unkind, and certainly unloving.
But the truth is that all of us, ALL of us who claim to follow Christ are in the process of becoming Christian. What I mean is that none of us, not one, has perfectly learned yet to love God with all our hearts, soul and minds, let alone learned to love our neighbor as ourselves. None of us has yet perfected healing one another with our listening, with our touch, with our love. None of us remembers in every moment to thank God, and to be God’s completely faithful servant. We are all learning to feed the hungry, love each other, see each other person as the brother or sister that they are, give beyond ourselves. Becoming a Christian, having a relationship with God, going to church every week: no matter how far we are on our journey, none of these things makes us perfect – none of these things makes us as Christ-like as we strive to become, once and for all. But they are all a start, a part of our journey as Christians.
We continue to strive and struggle to be loving, giving people. As Jesus himself said, he did not come for those who are well, he came for those of us who are not yet there. Church, faith, is not a haven for the righteous. It is a place where people who know they are limited and that they have failings come together in mutual support, in love, in service to one another and to the greater community. Throughout my life I have had many different people tell me that they don’t go to church because of the hypocrisy they find there. When pushed on what that means, they tell me that the people they met in church were like everyone else. They weren’t better than other people. They made mistakes, did things wrong, did not always even see that they did things wrong. Sometimes they were unkind, sometimes they were unloving. As a result, people stopped attending church. I have to admit, I find this responses very confusing. Of course, we are not better than others, and you will find unkindness and lack of love everywhere. We are here because we are on a journey, striving to love God and one another. We will never reach that perfection, and, truthfully, neither will they.
This struggle to be whole, this struggle to be Christ-like, this struggle to love and be in relationship with one another is not anything new for Christians of any age. The passage we read today from 1 Corinthians addresses that. While our struggle to become Christian takes many forms, in this passage Paul is talking about the challenges Christians had at the very beginning, and that we still have, to be in loving relationships even within our Christian community. We hear Paul admonishing a congregation for failing to get along with one another, for fighting with each other. Paul’s solution is simply to tell them all to agree with one another. But we know that is not so easy. Even before Paul, we see in the gospel lessons for today people of faith who were struggling with Jesus. And Jesus is telling us parables of conflict, of anger, among people who should have been loving to one another, should have seen their dependence and connection to one another, should have shared, and been kind and loving to those sent to collect for the master. But they couldn’t. They didn’t. And the same remains true for us today.
I read an article this week by Karoline Lewis in which she wrote,
“We are no strangers to the kind of division in communities of which Paul speaks — racial, denominational, and political. And our strategies for negotiating these divisions leave much to be desired. It often comes down to choosing sides, as if the spectrum between the two poles did not exist. It would be better if we only chose sides. Instead, we choose which side we are on and then, to make ourselves feel better or justified about our decision, we proceed to suspect, demonize, and tear down the other side. But as Elias Chacour (Father Chacour is the Archbishop Emeritus of the Melkite Catholic Church for Akko, Haifa, Nazareth, and all Galilee, an advocate for non-violence, working toward reconciliation between Arabs and Jews with whom our group had a chance to meet) says, “The one who is wrong is the one who says ‘I am right.’”
We are also no strangers to the kind of division that the gospel provokes. And sometimes we forget just how divisive the gospel can be. Choosing regard over rejection, respect over diminution, love over hate, peace over conflict is not as easy as we hope it could be, as we wish it would be. It seems like it should be easy — and that’s the problem. Why is it that we find it so difficult to make what appears to be a rather obvious choice? A choice for love? What stands in our way? What is at stake for us that we are reluctant to admit or to say out loud?”
She went on to talk about a group that she is with of Palestinians and Israelis who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict and she said one of the fathers of those who had died said this: “No wall, not matter how high, can stop two kinds of people, one determined suicide bomber and the one determined peacemaker.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4249
Paul and Jesus are both calling us to be the peacemakers who cannot be stopped. But we know from personal experience that getting along with one another is hard.
Truthfully, even hearing one another accurately is not easy. Most of you, no doubt are familiar with the childhood game, which we called “operator” when I was a kid. A group sits in a circle and one person whispers a message to the person on their right. That person then passes that message on to the person on his or her right. The message passes all around the circle until the last person finally repeats the message out loud. It has usually become something very different from what it was originally. As this simple child-hood game shows us, even hearing clearly the words of one another can be challenging.
Hearing the message within our words is even harder. I have found myself reflecting during this time when there is more quiet for reflection, on a relationship I’ve had with someone I’ve known now for 30 years. This is someone who simply never understands what I say to him. I will think I am telling him the sky is beautiful and he will become offended thinking I am telling him that he is not beautiful. I keep trying to have conversations with him, but he is always offended by what I say, and always insistent that I am being uncaring with my words. I don’t know why my words affect him like this. I will probably never know. But I know that communication is just hard. Today is mother’s day, and we know that even within our families, it can be so hard to hear and understand one another. Communication is challenging. We are all watching this service today because we believe in a marvelous, amazing, wonderful God who has called us to be here, whatever that looks like for you, to be on our spiritual journeys, to be in a state of prayer and praise together. But that wonder, that gift, that awe does not mean that it suddenly becomes easy for us to really communicate, to understand one another, or to then choose to be in relationship with one another. Our churches have struggled with understanding one another and with divisions between us from the beginning. That continues as we move through time.
I’m also not convinced that all disagreements are bad things. When we can be in the place of hearing the different opinions, hopes, dreams of one another, we can grow from the experience. Without those challenges, growth is not as forthcoming. Hearing only our own thoughts and feelings, we can fail to see the amazing places God would show us and move us. But getting to that place where we can hear those differences and share them is not easy.
I have to admit, even for pastors, though part of my job is to love the entire congregation and to be able to listen, hear, and support every person in a congregation who seeks that support, there have been times when this has not always been easy. It has not always been easy for me to be in a community of very differently minded people. And it can be especially hard when those differently minded people are very vocal about those opinions, and sometimes are unkind in the expression of those opinions, as some people in our churches tend to be. For a year, many years ago, I served as an interim music minister in a congregation that was in a difficult place: many parishioners were elderly and dying, the congregation was very diverse in ways that brought both gifts and, in their case, much conflict into the fellowship, they were a redevelopment church that wasn’t quite ready to make the radical changes necessary to keep it alive, and they had gone through a series of challenging relationships with previous pastors and music directors. Because of all they had been through, they did not trust others easily and were especially suspicious of people they didn’t know, especially if they had been hand-picked by outsiders to the congregation, and had been “assigned,” as I was, to serve in that particular church. When I was hired on there was, predictably, a lot of hostility thrown my direction. One example that might illustrate the point – I came on board about a month and a half before Easter. At our first choir rehearsal, I brought out Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus to see if it was an Easter possibility and to get a sense of the abilities of the choir. We ran through the piece one time, after which I began to make suggestions, as choir directors are supposed to do, on ways we might improve our performance. But just as I got the first sentence out of my mouth, one of the choir members demanded of me “How old are you?” Stunned by the interruption, I answered that I was 30, which at the time, I was. She responded, “Well we’ve been singing this longer than you’ve been alive so we don’t need you telling us how to do it!” A fine start to our friendly Christian community relationship. As I said there was a great deal of hostility and it came from several corners. It was not long before I could identify my self-appointed “assistant choir directors” and could count on their “suggestions” and other comments as one might count on the structure of any organized group. But I also began to try to befriend the especially hostile members of the choir. And, also predictably, their hostility lessened in almost direct proportion to how much time I took to hear them, how accurately I listened, and how deeply they felt I understood. Unfortunately, there remained a couple women that would not let me in. In the end, their continued hostility probably formed part of my decision to leave at the end of that first year, though I was an interim music director and at the time I told myself I was leaving because the interim work was finished. I look back on that experience with sadness. It was hard to get close to these women. It was hard to want to get close to them in light of their hostility. But I wish I had tried a little harder. As their personal stories were revealed to me by others in the church, I learned that they were in a lot of pain, pain it was not easy for anyone, within or without of the church, to break through. But in that painful place, these parishioners needed others to hear them, they needed friendly caring faces to acknowledge them, they needed someone to say, “even when you hurt me, I still love you, accept you as my sister and will stand with you.” Instead, I allowed their anger and hostility to drive me out, and in so doing, I added, I learned later, another layer to their feelings of abandonment and pain.
Even in Christian community there will be times when we cannot work through differences and find we have to worship and love God in separate places. But we are called to love and to work at wholeness in all our relationships, no matter how they end, with everything we have. Perhaps if I had worked harder, if we had worked harder, even with my leaving, there might have been healing that happened for myself, these women and the community. Perhaps, had we worked harder, we might have seen God’s action in this situation, God’s movement in each other, God’s face in one another.
I don’t think that we are required to always agree with one another. Sometimes being in relationship with each other looks like agreeing to disagree after we have heard and loved one another. Sometimes being in Christian fellowship will mean we have to work, searching even harder for solutions that are acceptable to everyone involved, despite our differences. But God is in the challenging people of this world and in their work, as much as God might be present in our own work. God loves those we do not understand as much as God loves us. And God calls us to love and to be in community with all of our neighbors, even those who make us see red, those who hurt us, those whom we feel we cannot agree with. Maybe God presents God-self most firmly in people we struggle to hear and know. For in that struggle we grow in our patience, we grow in our ability to see God as bigger than we knew God to be before, we grow in our ability to love and therefore we grow in our process of becoming Christian. It is part of our Christian call to sit in those uncomfortable places with those people who anger us and look for where God’s face and God’s words are even in their words, even in their messages.
Brian Peterson said, “True love is not measured by how good it makes us feel: it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.”
Psalm 27 ends with the words, “‘Seek God’s face!’ Your face, O God, I will seek.” In the end this is our call. When we seek God’s face in each other, even in those we struggle to love and understand, our struggles with one another will be different. For in listening to each other, we open the space for God’s words to come in, for God’s face to shine, for God’s help in our journey to become Christian. Amen.