The sermon for week September 04, 2011
September 4, 2011 HC - Labor Day Weekend
Romans 13: 8-14, Matthew 18: 15-20
Labor Day weekend marks the end of the summer season for most of us. It’s a manufactured holiday, a thoroughly American day of rest for which we all owe a debt of gratitude to Samuel Gompers. Labor Day is an unusual event when you think about it. It is a day we intentionally set aside to celebrate work, by refraining from doing anything productive at all.
In the early years of the republic, efforts by tradesmen to create better working conditions by refusing to work were considered criminal offenses. Now, thanks to the Labor Movement, it’s a holiday!
During the 30’s laborers in this country forged a self-confident workers' organization dedicated to the principles of solidarity and mutual aid. In a society where individualism is celebrated 365 days a year, it remains a unique achievement.
My first awareness of the Labor Movement, as it’s often called, came as a kid in Detroit where unions created a strong-hold in a city that was all about building cars. I was confused by how the refusal to work could lead to better working conditions and higher wages; but then I learned that the unions were only part of an equation with management on the other side. I learned this was an adversarial relationship that required negotiation and mediation. All very big and confusing words to a kid; but it simply meant that the only way they could get along was to identify a common goal and cooperate in a common cause.
Later I observed the same dynamic at work in every human group of which I was a part: in schools, politics, sports, families and even the church. Whenever the means of manufacture, sales, distribution, contracts or covenants enter into human relationships someone is keeping score and there is bound to be conflict.
As a member of the Conflict Resolution Team for the Church’s Association, I have seen churches divided over situations both serious and silly. In one situation a conflict erupted in the church’s kitchen and spread throughout the leadership of the church over what was to be done with left-over chicken!
Failure to remove articles from the church’s refrigerator or leaving a soiled towel on a rack can become an infraction worthy of expulsion in some churches. And if people disagree about left-over chicken imagine what can happen when it comes to picking the color scheme for the sanctuary or replacing the hymnals!
Conflict in the Church is more common than we care to admit. Where two or three are gathered together, there are probably four opinions!
It may not be possible to live in community without conflict. But our scripture passages today suggest that the Law of Love is the guiding principle of Christian community, even when we beg to differ.
When conflict occurs in the Church whether it is in the kitchen or the conference room, it belongs to the whole community. Every opinion expressed by an individual is part of a larger view point that may be unexpressed by others. I’ve learned that when a disagreement occurs with what to do with left-over chicken, it’s not about the chicken! It’s about how well we love one another. It’s not about the colors chosen for the sanctuary, it’s about how we worship. It’s not about the hymnals. It’s about the collective memory of the words and music that have formed our faith and established our identity as children of God.
When conflict occurs in the context of Christian community, Jesus tells us that it needs to be addressed within the community so that the underlying issues may be resolved.
Conflict was common in the villages and synagogues in first century Palestine, where a majority suffered oppression by those in power. Jesus and his disciples were often victims of a culture in conflict. His teachings were held in disrepute by most of the religious establishment in Jerusalem and he suffered rejection in the Galilean village of Nazareth where he grew up and even the disapproval of his own family. Jesus was a polarizing figure then, as he is now.
On the night he was betrayed, Jesus commanded his disciples to: “Love one another as I have loved you,” as he prepared to lay down his life for the brave, new community they were to create. It was based on a theology of forgiveness and acceptance that became known simply as “The Way.” It was a community unlike any existed at the time.
Generally people tend to gravitate toward groups of shared identity based on some characteristic. We feel safe with people who look like us and share our values. Given a choice most of us will choose dull and predictable over diverse and unpredictable every time! We want to feel safe, not challenged!
Yet the early church was an eclectic community made up prostitutes, tax collectors, the healed and the holy, the sinners and the self-righteous, men, women and children, rich and poor, leaders from the temple, Jews and Gentiles, slave and free. They were the people whose lives had been touched by Jesus. They formed an inclusive and egalitarian community of people who were learning to love one another, for they found they were unable to deny to others the grace they themselves had received. The book of Acts describes those early days of the church:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44-46)
When God gave birth to the Church at Pentecost, it was not intended to be just another group bound together by a common cause. God intended it to be an instrument of transformation and reconciliation, a process that begins within the community itself.
As writer Anne Lamott states it: “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay exactly the way we are.”
In order to affect that kind of transformation we must be willing to learn from one another. Transformation requires us to recognize that we may need each other’s differences more than we care to admit. Transformation may require that the old learn from the young, the rich from the poor, the leaders from the led, each caring for the other in the process of healing our mutual brokenness.
Elizabeth O’Connor who served on the staff of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C speaks to the Labor of Love which is the reconciling work of the Body of Christ when she writes:
“The vows that we make when we become members of the Church of Jesus Christ are more than an oath to stick around with a particular group of people. I believe that they can be interpreted as a commitment to a total inner transformation. This transformation, which takes place as we try to live out our lives with those who are also called to be on this inward path, is simply learning to live by love-learning to be persons in community with other persons. This is the most creative and difficult work to which any of us will ever be called. There is no higher achievement in all the world than to be a person in community, and this is the call of every Christian. We are to be builders of liberating communities that free love in us and free love in others.”
The book of Acts records the struggles of the early Church to “love one another.” It’s important for us to recognize that the disciples did not learn to love one another on their own. It was the promised Presence of Christ “where two or more are gathered together in my name” that created and sustained the young churches’ efforts to become the Body of Christ in the world.
It is a point we often miss in a sentimentalized view of the Church, where peace may be acquired at the price of denial and repression. It is not the absence of conflict to which the Church aspires; but the presence of Christ in the conflict that makes all the difference. Indeed, we may learn more about how to be the Church in the context of conflict than in a feigned peace created by ignorance or benign neglect.
Last year this church engaged in a “Sacred Conversation on Race” as a part of an continuing commitment to engage in conversations where the church is known to experience conflict. We sat across the table from one another, held hands and prayed with one another, reaching across the racial divide to help fulfill the dream of Martin Luther King when he shared this vision of what he referred to as “The Beloved Community” in a speech delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
At the time these words were spoken, nothing could have been further from the truth!
Jesus prayed “that they may be One, as we are One.” The dream of Martin Luther King and the vision of Jesus still awaits its time. As Paul observed in this morning’s scripture: “The night is far gone, the day is near.” (Romans 13:12) and yet there is much work of reconciliation yet to be done.
In a recent interview on NPR Krista Tippet asked, “How Do We Live and Honor Each Other Despite Our Differences?” This question was the featured title of her program “On Being” and the first of many questions Tippet addressed to Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, an Evangelical seminary in California that trains leaders in the Church from all over the world.
In response to the question Mouw insisted that the way people are treated is a greater measure of Christian virtue than the positions one takes. Mouw said that as a Christian he sees other human beings as “works of divine art.” But Tippet wondered whether that description could genuinely be applied to a person whose sexual identity Mouw defined as fundamentally wrong.
In response Mouw suggested that we need to start some of our conversations again from the beginning, certainly the conversation about sexuality. He believes that only by naming our hopes and our fears, articulating them among ourselves, and revealing them to each other, can we begin to recreate something called a common life, which can contain, and not be destroyed by, our differences.
Tippet admitted in the interview that this is a messy moment in the history of the human family in which we are reaching for new definitions of relationship, marriage and family. She agreed with Mouw that the Church needs to engage in conversation on issues that both define and divide the Church.
Our inability to enter into meaningful dialogue with those who differ from us has often led to the Church’s becoming insulated and even irrelevant in a culture that challenges us to live up to the ads we produce for TV. Do we really welcome everyone, as Jesus did? Jesus practiced a radical hospitality that resulted in the creation of a community committed to loving one another not because of similarity; but in spite of differences.
In our attempts to be the Church of Christ in Sylvania we have engaged in many potentially divisive conversations over the years in response to the presence of Christ among us. Through it all we have attempted to practice the polity for which we are known, the polity of an egalitarian approach to decision making which more than anything else defines our theology.
Recently we formed a group to continue the Sacred Conversations on issues currently being debated in the church. The Open and Affirming Study Group is committed to study the issue of sexuality as it presents itself historically and personally within the context of Christian community. We are examining the scriptures and reading what others have written of their experience as it relates to the community of faith. We are fully engaged in this process with the hope that our study will result in a program of continuing dialogue with the congregation on this sensitive topic. It is a topic with profound implications for how we relate to one another in Beloved Community.
As we look to the life of Jesus to inform our life and practice, it may be helpful to recall the example of Jesus when the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to him whom they accused of being caught in adultery. “Teacher,” they said, “the law of Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Jesus did not respond to the woman’s accusers immediately. Instead he bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger while the crowd waited.
When Jesus responded to their accusation, he said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
One by one those who made their accusations against the woman dropped their weapons and walked away. Then Jesus looked at the woman and said, “Go and sin no more.” It is a scene about the deep and lasting issues of the human condition as they are experienced in the context of our communities of faith.
Jesus invites us to look first at our own attempts to justify our actions and cover our complicity in the judgment of others, actions that would exclude rather than invite others into the fellowship of our community of faith. And to ponder the deeper question: Who experienced the greater transformation on that day… the woman whose sins were forgiven or the men who no longer accused her?
If we are to be transformed within the context of our being together, in spite of our differences, it will be because in the brokenness that exists between us we recognize the presence of the risen Christ in our midst….where in remembrance of Christ, we celebrate our life together which is blessed, broken and shared in the sacrament of this community of faith, a place where Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread and in the love we have for one another.
Thanks be to God!