Young and Restless

In the weeks following The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which I attended in late April with friends and classmates from Duke Divinity School, I began to reflect on what I had seen take place in Tampa. While there were certainly holy moments of conferencing, worship, and fellowship as well as frustrating times of politics, impasse, and general drudgery, two particular themes stood out as more troubling than most. One, as has been oft noted by recent reports and statistics, is that most of the people I saw there were…how do I say it…on the downward slope? Over the hill?

Ah, forget it. Our church is old. Our church has a median-age of 60 or somewhere thereabouts, which just so happened to be accurately reflected in the makeup of a large portion of each conference’s delegation. The most obvious remedy to this statistic is, you guessed it, to get more young people, right? However, in recent years, we have found it increasingly difficult to pull in young people to our churches, based on the evidence that the aforementioned median age keeps creeping skyward. So not only do we need young people in our churches, we desperately need young people in our pulpits, in director’s chairs, on boards and agencies, and in the lead in our efforts for evangelism. Which brings me to the next troubling thing I noticed at GC2012.

Image

The Duke Div Crowd at General Conference 2012, Tampa, FL. 

From my experience attending General Conference and watching a portion of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference this past week, young people have done a dreadful job at making our voice heard in a way in which it can be received. What do I mean by this? Let me offer three examples:

  1. The first night of General Conference, two young people approached our group and introduced themselves as students from other seminaries. They asked if we were required to wear something specific each day (our professor had given us guidelines on how to dress for conference). When we replied that we were, they went on to tell us that they were staging a demonstration for the next day where all young people would wear black, signifying the lack of young people in attendance at General Conference. They had made black shirts declaring, “Where are the young people?” and had chosen the first business day of conference to show them off. One of the students stated, “We’re going to wear black to show everyone how young people are underrepresented at General Conference.” I’m not completely sure what their purpose was; it was already very apparent that there were very few young people there – one only need to stand around the coffee table for five minutes during a break to see more gray hair than spiked hair. Raising awareness for the lack of young people in itself is not a bad idea, but the meaning of the use of black was lost on all of us. Furthermore, when the demonstration actually happened, it was so completely insignificant that I am not sure that anyone really noticed (probably due to the fact that there were, indeed, barely any young people there at all).
  2. Of all the people leading the charge to include the voices of young people and young clergy, specifically, the most visible has been Rev. Adam Hamilton, both for his notoriety across our connection and the sincerity in his actions. One afternoon during lunch at General Conference, instead of eating with any number of important people in United Methodism as he most certainly could have, Adam chose to hold a Q&A session with young people who had attended Conference. The session was designed to ask and answer questions related to the Call to Action report, which had mixed reviews over all age groups and demographics and ultimately failed later on. As we found out, many young people in the room were quite troubled by several facets of the CTA and chose to voice their opinion at Adam very strongly. I use the preposition “at” because their tone was harsh, their words were laced with anger, and their points weren’t all that strong, which is to say they didn’t seem to listen to whatever point Rev. Hamilton had just made. One person questioned where a large portion of funds that had been diverted from something was going and how that would affect young people, a valid question, no doubt. Adam seemed prepared for the question, giving sympathy for the concern followed by a well reasoned, articulate answer as to how the funds would be used. Instead of a courteous disagreement or follow-up question or concern, the young person half-stood from her chair and semi-shouted, “YOU DIDN’T EVEN ANSWER MY QUESTION” (he had) and continued to accuse the CTA and members of the committee of diverting funds for something or another away from social justice ministries (they hadn’t, as Adam had explained just three minutes prior). The most egregious example from this session was when the moderator (a fellow young person) asked for a question from an ethnic minority, in order to get a full representation of the group. This drew the ire of one person who had previously asked a question, who apparently WAS an ethnic minority, even though he was seated at the very top of the riser and possibly completely hidden from this poor guy’s line of vision. The moderator was then accused of being ageist, sexist, and racist, for which he profusely apologized. It was perhaps the most outlandish example of rudeness from all of GC, save for the fact that they never served us any breakfast at the 7 a.m. “Seminary Breakfasts,” but I digress.
  3. The last example comes from Jurisdictional Conference, whose primary task is the election of bishops. During the election process, two young people stood at the microphone (at different times) and asked for a moment of personal privilege. In this moment, they each took time to make speeches centering on issues that young people have been bringing up since General Conference. One decried the lack of funds appropriated to young people in the budget (which could’ve been applied for). The other lamented the lack of diversity among elected bishops (certainly a valid point). For all the speeches’ merits (after all, the Church NEEDS to give funds to young people’s initiatives and NEEDS diversity in leadership to represent the growing diversity in our connection), neither was particularly clear in what their main point actually was and more importantly, both were spoken with the same harshness and sharp edge that I spoke of in the previous example.

Why do I mention these examples? Shouldn’t we speak truth to power? Shouldn’t we make our voice heard by any means we have necessary?

Absolutely.

But here’s the problem: we have kind of been jerks about it. Rather than engaging in honest debate and discussion, young people have chosen to, as the kids say, RAGE, speaking harshly, yelling points rather than responding, and perhaps most concerning, not listening. More than that, often times it has sounded like we have been whining. Often, we have come across more like stomping toddlers rather than young adults.

I don’t bring up these examples to poke fun at, come down on, or belittle those young adults that I’ve mentioned, but rather am truly grateful that they have faithfully served as delegates, taking time out of their schedules to give themselves as servants of our Church. Their service cannot be understated. Their passion is apparent and they have certainly done more than I have to advance the cause of young people in the United Methodist Church.

To be sure, there are certainly moments in history in which those who truly changed the world needed a sharp edge and a hard word. If Martin Luther King, Jr. had acted nicely, then he would’ve been just another smooth-tongued preacher. If those preachers, ministers, and others in South Africa had waited for their turn to speak, then the darkness of apartheid would probably still hang over the country like a cloud. And surely if Jesus had been respectful of the religious authorities of His day, He might’ve just died of natural causes.

Some might disagree, but I cannot simply equate those situations and ours. If those who are older in the UMC cannot see the need for our participation in the structures of our denomination, then we deserve whatever painful, slow death we will surely die. However, I believe that they do see that need. I believe, though, that they need our encouragement, our reminding, our nudging to help them remember. They need us to help them see the gifts and grace that we bring to the table. They need us to hold them accountable to making sure that everyone has a seat at the table, regardless of skin color, gender, or age. When another seat is available for nomination, when another line item in the budget is up for debate, when another chair is to be elected, they need us to hold up a mirror and remind them that they cannot do it by themselves. The renewal of the United Methodist Church will take all of us, young and old. Without young people in meaningful and significant positions across the connection, though, it will certainly fail (or perhaps even worse, wallow in tepid mediocrity for many more years).

But just like they need us, we need them. We need them to show us how things work. We need their wisdom from years of ministry with the people of God. We need to hear their mistakes and failures as well as their successes and triumphs. We need them to mentor us, to guide us in leadership and ministry, and to show us with their own lives and ministries as an example, how to be effective pastors and leaders. We need them to show us how to put lofty ideals and ideas into concrete action on the ground in our local churches.

Following the ordination service in North Alabama this year, I made my way down the aisle to speak with friends. As I got closer and closer to the front of the church, I consecutively ran into four pastors from my childhood and adolescence. How different my life would be without the Brother Gary’s, the Brother Ken’s, the Max’s, the Mary’s, the Matt’s! Each had, in some capacity, shaped the arc of my journey in a way that God used to guide me to my call to God’s ministry. I, like all other young people, would not even be in these positions without the mentoring, shaping, and guidance that we received from our forerunners in the Methodist church. We need them.

At times, we need them to show us the way, but other times we need them to step aside. We need their guidance to begin our ministries, but we also need them to allow us to try new, boundary-pushing ministries that reach the margins and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need them to keep us grounded in our tradition and discipline, but we also need them to let us reinvent the way we think about being United Methodists in the United States and around the world. In all these things, however, we ALL need to learn to be respectful towards each other and to speak truth in love. Not to be too clichéd, but Paul reminds us that when we fail to remember this, we sound a lot like gongs and cymbals. I heard a lot of clanging at General and Jurisdictional Conference.

As young people, let’s claim our rightful seat at the table by speaking the truth to our elders, but for the love of God and everybody else, can we stop being so mean?

To our older colleagues and fellow disciples: I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but you really need us. Let us have our place. We love this church, too. Teach us, guide us, and mentor us, but respect us. Listen to our ideas. Don’t treat us as tokens, but sisters and brothers who are the keys to renewal for the United Methodist Church.

12 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Should Be A Fun Semester

image

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Hawkeye, Gracie and the Kingdom of God

I was browsing the internet earlier this week when I came across one of the most heartbreaking and poignant pictures I’d ever seen. The photograph depicted Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever, laying next to the coffin of his owner, one of the Navy SEALs killed in the recent helicopter crash in the Middle East. Even in death, Hawkeye wouldn’t abandon his friend.

I’ve always been a dog person. True, I’ve had some great dogs in my life, but more than anything, I think it’s because dogs reveal to us so much truth about the Kingdom of God in our midst. This morning, I had to drop Tori off at the Divinity school for orientation, a task which required our dear little ball of fetch, Gracie, to stay in her crate for approximately 20 minutes. Gracie has that canine sense that lets her know when we’re about to leave the house, causing her to retreat behind something or under the table. As we say, “OK Gracie…it’s time…” she will inevitably wriggle her way under the table in a final plea of freedom. Even as she is placed in front of the door of her crate, she has been known to defiantly dig her front paws in the carpet as she is encouraged to enter on her own accord. Simply put, Gracie is usually pretty unhappy with us.

However, upon returning home, (only 20 minutes later, mind you) I open the door to that same crate and out rockets a Dachshund blur of stringy hair and teeth. Based off her excitement, you would think Gracie had eaten a concoction of espresso beans and uppers, causing mild hyperventilation and jumping. She can barely hold still enough from jumping and licking for me to affix the leash to her collar to venture outside, much less show any lingering grudge from her imprisonment only 20 minutes prior. Every single time, without fail, Gracie demonstrates to us the loyalty so many of us have come to expect out of dogs (or at least, her gratitude for being freed from the dark, cold box).

This summer, in my own experience and in the lives of friends, I have experienced situations of extreme conflict and hurt…in the church, no less. Each situation has caused pain and division in the body that has not been easily let go. We refuse to let simple wrongs slide, instead opting for prolonged grudges to be kept, hurt to fester and conflict to linger.

As a group that claims to be all about unity, we sure don’t seem to act like we care anything about that. I’m sure Hawkeye didn’t appreciate being taken into harm’s way time and time again alongside his SEAL friend, but he never left. Gracie doesn’t appreciate being locked away in a cage for sometimes hours on end, but she never fails to forgive us. To live together is to covenant to continually forget and forgive the wrongs done to us, in hopes that others will do the same. Perhaps we in the church should take a lesson from our canine companions – forgiving, loving unconditionally, forgetting, and most of all, sticking by each other in times of conflict and hurt, recognizing Christ’s image in each other and knowing that the love and charity that we show others stems and flows from the love that Christ shows us.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

All Creation Sings

I’m pretty sure the Kingdom of God is in here somewhere.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan :: A Review

As a student of theology at a place like Duke University, the academic rigor of theological education tends to cause one to view with caution anyone or anything that attempts to frame Scripture as anything but the inspired Word of God, much less something that attempts to use Scripture as a rubric for interpreting the events of college football.  However, when I first heard of T.C. Nomel’s Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan, I was immediately intrigued.  No matter how I tried to act like a model Divinity student, I could not help but be interested in a book that combines two profound influences in my life: the Bible and Auburn football.  How would someone treat the Psalms in an orange-and-blue light?  Surely, no matter how insufferable and terrible they are, he would not cast Alabama fans in the role portrayed as the wicked in the Psalms, would he?  Since the parts of Chad Gibbs’ God and Football had been excellent at working with SEC fanaticism and personal Christianity, I made a half-hearted covenant with myself to check out Nomel’s work, if not now, then some time in the future.

As luck would have it, though, I received a message via Twitter from T.C. himself, asking if I would be interested in receiving a copy of the book in return for reviewing it on my blog. (He had somehow stumbled upon an earlier blog of mine, documenting my feelings after the National Championship in January.)  After warning him that not many people at all check out my blog, I readily agreed and received a copy in the mail a few days later.

A quick disclaimer: Shortly prior to receiving Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan, I read Unleashing the Scriptures by Stanley Hauerwas.  In the book, Hauerwas argues that the primary reading of Scripture is a communal one, that the Bible is first and foremost the Scripture of the Church, used for the building of the Kingdom of God and not, as both fundamentalists and historical-critics have been wont to do, an instrument to find some kind of hidden meaning that can be applied to one’s life for an end goal or means.  (As you can infer, Hauerwas takes his sharp-tongued axe to the doctrine of sola scriptura.)  I say all this to say that these ideas had been rolling around in my head for a few days before receiving Reading the Psalms and can and will probably come across in my review of Nomel’s work.  This is not a bad or good thing, but rather my attempt at transparency.

In Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan, Nomel examines several different types of Psalms in light of the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons for the Auburn Tigers.  As an alumnus of Auburn and lifelong fan of the Tigers, as well as a lifelong resident of the state of Alabama, I was very familiar with each of the seasons and the culture of the state that Nomel so often references.  Using the famous methodology of Hermann Gunkel, Nomel breaks up the Psalms into Gunkel’s five major categories of the Psalter: Hymns, Psalms of Lament, Psalms of Thanksgiving, Wisdom Psalms and Royal Psalms.  He is careful to note to the reader exactly what he is doing, or rather not doing; “[This book] is not exegesis,” says Nomel, meaning that it is not an academic exercise in which one applies academic tools, technique and study to extract some kind of meaning or lesson from the text.  He says, “Instead, this book is simply a reading of Psalms from a particular perspective, namely that of an Auburn fan…”  In several other places in this book, he is careful to remind the reader of this distinction, a practiced that eased one of my greatest concerns in tackling this work.  While I do love Auburn, I was not exactly sure how I felt about someone taking the Psalter and injecting his or her own worldview, station in life, or in this case, college football rivalry and experience, to allow the Psalms to speak for them.  However, Nomel’s clear refrain and reminder helped me to take this book as he intended it.

The book chronicles the plight, hopefulness and jubilation of the Auburn family from 2008 to 2010 in light of several genres of Psalms.  From the 2008 and 2009 decline and rebuilding of our program and coinciding rise of our most hated rival to the journey to the mountaintop of the BCS National Championship in 2010, Nomel relates the feelings of Auburn fans in these seasons to emotions played out in the Psalms.  Ask any Auburn fan about the ’08 and ’09 seasons and some form of “How long, oh Lord?” will most likely be heard.  From the spectacular implosion and slow, exciting rebuilding we witnessed with our own program to the meteoric rise of the Alabama program, most Auburn fans, while still retaining the pride always felt by members of the Auburn family, felt the cruel tinge of despair and agony as those seasons unfolded.  We could truly relate to the Psalmists as our enemies gloated and we suffered.

As the book progresses, the reader recounts the unexpected hope experienced in the 2010 season as each passing week brought us closer to healing, closer to rebuilding, and closer to redemption.  Psalms of Thanksgiving are recalled for win after win, as the 2010 Tigers marched closer to the ultimate prize.  Nomel recalls specific games and personal experiences to relate to several selected psalms, experiences certainly shared by any reader who experienced similar moments along the roller coaster of 2010.

Although I was halfway through the book, I still felt I wasn’t completely on board with Nomel.  I felt I understood what he was going for, but one point of contention stood in the way.  At the beginning of his work, Nomel lays out a framework for his understanding of the relationship between God and football.  He challenges the notion that God is not concerned with or in control of the outcome of sporting events.  He explains:

”While Christians are likely to acknowledge God’s control over nature, and also to recognize his shaping the course of history, especially through deciding the outcome of major events, they sometimes are less likely to attribute to God control over the “smaller scale,” everyday events in the lives of individuals (i.e. in their own lives).”

He then cites several passages of Scripture in which he justifies God’s involvement in everything from large to small, including the outcome of football games.  Seeing as how I am not a Calvinist, I was quick to reject this point.  I believe it is dangerous territory to start delineating lines of blessing and curse based on football and university allegiances.  I recognized what Nomel was doing with identifying Auburn’s plight and rise with emotions elicited in the Psalms, but was fairly uncomfortable with going so far as to say that God was causing us to win.

However, when I got to chapter on the 2010 Iron Bowl, I had a minor revelation.  While I had enjoyed the book up to that point, I was not sure if it was really something that I could get on board with, mostly because of the disagreement listed above.  A nice work, I thought, but not something that I was going to heartily recommend.  Then, when I read Nomel’s story of attending the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, I abandoned the divinity school mindset that I had occupied for most of the book – one of academic analysis, critical reading and thorough combing of details – and slowly realized that I had felt every emotion that T.C. had mentioned thus far.  From the despair of Alabama’s rise to the hopefulness of the 2009 campaign to the joy of the 2010 season, the Psalms had served as a way to highlight and remember those moments.

To read Scripture as a church is to remember the unfolding history of God’s saving work in the world.  When we as a church take time to remember the things that God has done through God’s people, we are reminded of our place as a community – as God’s community of blessing to the world.  Reading the Psalms through the lens of Auburn football is certainly not a way to reflect on Christian salvation or some crude way to pronounce God’s blessing solely on my Tigers.  With that in mind, though, to read the Psalms in light of one’s participation in a community like the Auburn family is to be able to identify with so many emotions exhibited by the Psalmist in our Scriptures.  The seasons of 2008, 2009 and 2010, with the wins, losses, interaction with rivals, faux-scandals and attack from outside sources, gives those of us with orange-and-blue blood a real point of identification when we revisit the Psalms as a people of God.  Having experienced many of these ebbs and flows that Nomel has identified teaches us a way of reading Scripture that we might not have thought of before.  While we do not read the Psalms and identify Auburn when the Psalmist speaks and Alabama when the “wicked” or “enemy” is identified, this book shows us that we can certainly can identify what many of these Psalms actually feel like.

Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan serves to highlight the many comparisons between the experience of Auburn fans and the Psalms.  Many not familiar with what it means to be a part of the Auburn family might scoff, but for those inside, this book provides a way of both reading the Psalms and remembering our history that both entertains and enlightens.

-JCH

Buy the book here.

T.C. Nomel on twitter.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Everything is a Remix

Seeing as how the majority of the content of what I write involves the connectedness or interdependence of communities and entities, specifically pertaining to the Church and Christian communities, I figured I’d share this website/video series I stumbled upon earlier today (literally).

The website Everything is a Remix is a collection of (currently) three short films examining the advent and progression/innovation of creativity in invention, music, movies, technology and culture. There is a final part to the series, set to be released in the fall, but the first three are terribly entertaining.  If you have twenty or so minutes, I’d highly recommend checking it out.

The idea of these videos stems from the notion, as I said in an earlier post, that many things we do, be it music, movies, technology, theology or preaching, is rarely something we’ve managed to dream up; rather, there are component parts with which we are familiar that we drag together to, hopefully, make something better.  An interesting idea for those of us in the Church.

::Visit the link above or http://www.everythingisaremix.info for the website and video series.

-jc

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sermon :: 06.29.11 :: I Corinthians 1:10-18

*Below is the text from the sermon given today at my field ed church, Mount Pleasant UMC in Greensboro, NC.  The text and theme come from a series called All for One, in which we study several “one-another” passages from the New Testament. 

I Corinthians 1:10-18

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

You and I have probably each heard the phrase hundreds of times, uttered by a wide array of people: military officers, football and basketball coaches, presidents and elected leaders and those campaigning for elected office; UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL.  It’s not a complicated saying, implying that together we stand tall and firm in the face of peace and adversity, in good times in bad, while if not together, we will if not surely face defeat or destruction, most certainly will have a more difficult go otherwise.

Despite living in a country whose history is somewhat built on this maxim, it is not easy to see its implementation in our daily lives today.  Depending on your political affiliation and/or which 24-hour cable news network you stop on, our living rooms are filled with stories about how the “others” are making it impossible to get anything accomplished because of their unwillingness to sacrifice for the good of the country.

This morning, we read of an account from the Apostle Paul, who faces a similar situation at the opening of his first letter to the Christian Church in Corinth.  Corinth, a bustling metropolis of trade and commerce, relatively young in its history, was home to a budding community of Christians, presumably founded by Paul in his missionary travels.  Because this church was largely made up of Gentiles rather than Jews, Paul was faced with what some call a “re-socialization” or, more simply stated, an instruction of these Gentiles how to properly live out a social existence as followers of the Risen Christ.  Thus, a majority of this letter is written to explain to the Corinthians how to live together as a church.

It is no surprise, then, that the main focus of this first letter is one in which Paul deals with an issue of “united we stand…” We read here that some in the Church have reported to Paul of factions and division among members in the community.  The reasons for conflict are mentioned by Paul as stemming from differing “leaders” of factions, different baptizers, and what some have inferred as being difference in socio-economic classes, or rather, the “haves” and “have-nots.”  Sadly enough, these are not unfamiliar problems for us in the church today.

At a time when our country and world is rife with political, economic and social conflict, the church struggles with many of the same issues.  At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor in our country – between the haves and have nots – is the widest its ever been, many churches, despite our best efforts, still face issues of congregations roughly delineated between groups that have and groups that have not.  And even in local settings, our congregations – the Body of Christ – can become divided over those who are life-long Christians and those who are new to their faith; those who have lived somewhere for a lifetime and newcomers to the community; young opinions versus old opinions; the way we discern that God is calling us to act versus the way we’ve always done it ‘round here.

It is with these issues in mind that we hear Paul’s words to the church in Corinth today.  “I appeal to you,” says Paul – I urge you, exhort you, plead with you, – to be in agreement, in unity, with one another – let there be no divisions among you, but rather be unified for the same purpose.  All throughout Paul’s thesis to this letter is this theme teased out from the text of the church in Corinth’s need to be all on the same page.  Some have loudly declared their allegiances to different teachers such as Paul himself, Apollo or even Christ – as if Christ is the head of only one faction.  The Corinthians even used the one universal initiatory rite – baptism – to include themselves in a group while excluding others.  To say that Paul is upset by this is quite the understatement.  Paul’s sarcastic tone in his response signals his frustration with the people.  The unity that Christ desires and Paul communicates is undermined by the Corinthian’s – and our – tendency to shift our allegiance from Christ and the church to extraneous things of no consequence.  In this passage we can almost hear Paul ask us, “Has Christ been divided here?” “Was it “your way of doing things” that died on your behalf?”

This necessity of unity is one that is paramount in Scripture.  Paul instructs in Ephesians to “live a life worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.”  This calling involves bearing with each other in patience and love, making every effort to live in the bond of unity and peace.  Times were tough for early Christians – a church divided in the face of the Roman Empire faced sure destruction.  The Church today faces much of the same promise of destruction, although the ominous enemy is not an oppressive regime, but apathy, fatigue and our own petty divisiveness.  Jesus was quite clear in teaching us how to act as His body when He said, “By this they will know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another.”  A church eaten up with exclusion and divisiveness is surely not one in which members are examples to the world of Jesus’ love.

I often laugh when I am asked the question, “So what made you choose to enter church ministry?”  I often say, “Why in the world would anyone choose to go into church ministry?” But being the good Methodist that I am, having grown up taught to be kind and respectful, my usual response is somewhere in the area of I feel I am called here, there have been people who have formed me, although unknowingly for ministry, it is the path God has led me on, et cetera et cetera.  However, I sometimes wish I could say, “You poor, poor soul…you just don’t get it do you? I was sent here!”  We’re all sent here.  Pastor and author Frederick Buechner reminds us that it was not exactly our idea to start “The Church.”  We did not have an exploratory committee, offer an IPO, or appoint a board of directors.  Like Levi the Tax Collector, James and John the fishermen, Zaccheus the crooked public official, and even a hated persecutor of Christians like Paul, along with both you and me, were each called out of our ordinary circumstances, the mires of everyday life, to a life of extraordinary significance.  We are each called to be a part of a group that is charged with spreading the good news of Christ’s love to all the world – to take the work started by the Son of God and not just keep it afloat, but to spread it! Such an enormous task should give us cause for more than a small pause.

This task of unity, then, is one of great importance.  We see it play out in the world in a variety of ways – police splitting up criminals for interrogation, countless movies in which a team is split up because of some variable such as a budding romance or character flaw, a group torn apart over disagreement on who should lead.  It is much easier for someone or something to be broken up when it is apart rather than together.

That both Jesus and Paul use the image of a body to describe the church, then, is not at all surprising.  As someone who simply loves sports, and not only sports, but people who play sports who are extremely talented, this metaphor especially resonates with me.  To watch Lance Armstrong ride a bike, to previously watch Tiger Woods swing a golf club, to see Albert Pujols hit a home run, to watch Cam Newton run and throw a football – each transcends raw athletic ability.  Each demonstrates an entire body, trained and honed to work completely in sync, wholly unified, completing a task to perfection.  It becomes more than simply a variety of muscles, nerves, fibers, and processes working together, but comes to more resemble an art form.

In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul pleads with the Corinthians to be united in the same mind and purpose.  The true sense of what Paul is asking here is not completely conveyed with the word “united,” however.  This word which is often translated as such is in fact the same word used when we read of the fishermen’s nets being mended in the Gospels.  To be “united” as Paul suggests here, means to be sewn together, to be healed, to be made whole once again.  We read later in chapter twelve of the description of the individual body parts of Christ’s body, wherein Paul describes the necessity of the individual parts of the whole working together, thus causing no dissension or fracture.  Therefore, to be urged by this letter to be united, healed or sewn together is to be called back into cooperation with the whole body of Christ, recognizing that our dissension within Christ’s body not only causes discontinuity, but a real, open, bleeding wound.

To take this call to unity, or sewn-back-togetherness, seriously would be to heed Jesus’ words that we love one another. Throughout this letter, Paul offers teaching and correction for how the church is supposed to run.  But in one of the most quoted chapters of this book, he reminds each of us that even if we say all the right things in church, yet have no love for one another, we simply make a lot of noise.  This love that Paul speaks of is a potentially familiar term to many of us: agape.  This agape love can be and is often translated charity or kindness.  In it is the implication of yielding, that when we give this love to others, there is part of us that is given up.  It is a love without cost, without the expectation of being returned.  Likewise, as we submit ourselves to be unified with one another in Christ’s church, we somewhat allow ourselves to step aside for the purposes of bringing the Kingdom of God, as we pray, “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

To embrace this unity is not to melt into some kind of homogenous clump of the same ideas and practices; rather, to be unified in the church is to have love for one another, yielding in this agape love, seeing the image of Christ in one another, recognizing that we are each baptized into the same Christ, partake of the same body and blood of the Eucharist and work for the same Kingdom.  To be unified is to accept God’s will and plans as our own, not simply laying aside our own preferences and passions, but learning to pray, discern and form those plans and preferences into God’s work.  We recognize in each other, that like Levi, James, John, Peter and Paul, we are each called by Christ into His Holy Church.  In this idea we recognize John Wesley’s famous maxim: In all essentials, unity.  In all non-essentials, charity.  In all the ideas and doctrines and beliefs that utterly define us as Christ’s body, let us have unity, but in the things that we might disagree on, church budgets, church decisions, councils and committees, decisions about our worship life, and how are church functions, let us act in love, charity and grace towards one another, just as Christ has done for each of us.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, famous South African clergyperson, is famous for his work in ending the injustice of apartheid.  In one of his books, Tutu introduces a Zulu term called ubuntu, more a philosophy than a definable word.  Ubuntu is the idea that my personhood is wrapped up in your personhood – I am what I am because of what you are – I derive my value as a person from the value I place in you.  It is this idea that truly encompasses what it means to be united in the same purpose and willingness to consent to one another, the same consent as we read in this passage today.

A few summers ago, I spent three months in Logan County, West Virginia, on staff with the Appalachia Service Project.  ASP is a non-profit home repair ministry in which youth groups come for a week to sleep on air mattresses on high school gymnasium floors, often shower outside and repair the homes of low-income families in the Appalachian Mountains.  My very first real experience with disunity in the body came the very first week of volunteers that summer.  As a staffer, I was a part of a team of five who managed work crews, bought and handed out lumber, nails and other supplies, and advised group leaders in what in ASP-land is known as “Appalachian construction.”  This first week, I was in charge of overseeing the construction of a new, sturdy set of stairs for an elderly woman in the community.  The group leader in charge of the site was a retired British chemical engineer of 30 years.  Needless to say, he did not so much care for construction advice from a 21-year old long-haired college student from Alabama.  Every decision my staff and I made that week was met with scoffing and contention, always accompanied by an insistence of a better way.  Despite our pleas to just stick with our way for both continuity and our budget’s sake, he would continuously either change the plans for this simple project or raise a gigantic fuss about having to do something a “stupid” way.  About midway through the week, almost completely exasperated and pushed to my wit’s end with this group leader, I ceased my effort to try and fight it and resigned our relationship to one of sarcastic cooperation.  This meant that I would ask him to hang around so I could properly show him how to mix concrete, use a circular saw, or measure out a stringer for stairs – not my most Christ-like moment to be sure.  When he assured me, “I’ve been an engineer for 30 years…I know how to mix concrete…” I realized that resolving myself to complete disunity wasn’t the best way to get Ms. Mary some safe stairs.  After a long sit-down with this group leader, we agreed to try our best to work together, to be unified in our effort, to reach our common goal.  When the week finally ended, we still really didn’t get along, but we did have a new friend who could safely walk down her stairs to church.

While surely not a perfect example of how to relate to people, I believe this story teaches me – and all of us – a valuable story about unity in our fellowship.  When we recognize that our end goal – the worship of God and building of God’s Kingdom here on earth – is infinitely tied up in our love of each other, we begin to set aside petty differences, whether they are our ideas, traditions or social statuses.  When we see our brothers and sisters in Christ not as other members of an exclusive club with whom we must jockey for position so our ideas win out, but rather as baptized members of Christ’s body, infinitely loved by God and claimed and called to be a part of Christ’s church, we come to know that in the Cross, Christ has banished all division and made us one with Him.

Frederick Buechner describes the community of love in this way: “Loving each other doesn’t mean loving each other in some sentimental, unrealistic, greeting-card kind of way but the way families love each other even though they may fight tooth and nail and get fed up to the teeth with each other and drive each other crazy, yet all the time know deep down in their hearts that they belong to each other and need each other and can’t imagine what life would be without each other – even the ones they often wish had never been born.”  This love that binds us as a family – may it serve to strengthen us in the bond of unity and peace, may it lift us to a place worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called.  May we, as baptized children of God, seek to live in unity with one another, in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

5 Comments

Filed under Preaching