Preface: We are continuing through a series of instructions to the disciples and early church that might apply to us today as well. These gospel challenges aren’t convenient. They aren’t intended to fit easily into our existing lives. What they are intended to do is shake us to our very foundations. To turn our lives upside-down – in order to move us to do things God’s way instead of our own.
Sometimes the adult in the room actually knows the answer to the question before it is asked. Sometimes the adult in the room wants to see how honest the person being asked the question will be with their answer. A parent asks a child, “What are you doing?” as they see flour spread all over the counter with designs running through it. “Nothing,” the child will answer. Or as you come upon an older child getting in your wallet – “What are you doing?” and the answer will come back, “Ummmmm…nothing.” (Pause) Yeah. We know what’s going on – right? So when the disciples have been arguing on the road about who was the greatest among them – and Jesus asks, “What were you talking about on the road?” We already know what they are going to say, right? NOTHING. It is as if not saying anything, or saying “nothing” makes the guilt and shame go away.
AN UPSIDE DOWN WORLD. Jesus doesn’t miss a beat. He explains to the disciples that there is a reversal of status in God’s kingdom. The first are last. Those who are accustomed to authority will be servants, and the lowliest will be the leaders. He tells them right off that PRIVILEGE doesn’t work with him. SUCCESS doesn’t impress him.
OUTSIDERS. The usual perceptions of greatness and honor are upside-down here. Outsiders are honored guests – not ignored as you walk by or tasered behind fences. And women are considered a valuable part of the community – not a subspecies of male. THEY have value. Their BODIES have value. ALL people have dignity and value not matter where they were born and no matter what their religion.
CHILDREN. In THIS worldview, children have value. Even though they can’t sign petitions, can’t easily contribute to campaigns, don’t pay taxes, and can’t vote. Even so – despite their vulnerability and dependence, despite their lack of demonstrable productivity, children are valued in God’s sight. God wants them to be safe and healthy – God would probably support equal access to healthcare and equal acess to quality education, and certainly wouldn’t keep children in cages.
THIS is not an easy worldview to pick up. First of all, we have all kinds of resistance to these counter-cultural ideas – these kingdom ideas. And Secondly it is really hard to do. We honored our PADS workers – servants – today. And we really do appreciate every single person who helps with PADS in any way. And sometimes we feel good about it. And sometimes we don’t sleep because of what we’ve seen. And sometimes it is impossibly hard. The night that we were a warming center during the polar vortex, no one was turned away. In addition to our 52 guests sleeping on pads in Fellowship Hall, we had additional guests in the Great Hall. One of our regular guests has fairly severe mental illness. He had been told by someone that he could sleep in the area off of the stage, and had plugged in a small TV which he played all night long. He also cursed quite loudly and quite regularly all night long. We could hear his words in the hall. And his TV created a tripping hazard. And he was loud, which interrupted everyone’s sleep. Apparently, this had been going on for some time – and the HF staff hadn’t addressed these issues. So WE had to raise the issues – and the only way to keep us compliant with fire codes and appropriate boundaries was for him to be forbidden to be here. Because he was dependent on the TV, and his issues were severe. And we all felt horrible. I think we had hoped that if we explained why this couldn’t happen that he could adjust – or HF could find some other way to accommodate him without it being unsafe. But that didn’t happen and he is simply not allowed to be here. (Pause) Friends, in God’s view this hurting man will be first and most of us will be last. But we can’t live into that yet. Other realities push in on us: fire codes, and respect for other guests, and even our concern for this hurting brother can’t help us find another way.
It is hard to try to live into this upside-down worldview of God’s.
In a perfect world, people who are good-hearted might agree on more. But we don’t live in a perfect world. DISAGREEMENTS and DIVISIONS are common among us! What we know as Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, 1 Corinthians, has lots of instructions on how to live together. Apparently in Corinth, the church tended towards divisiveness. Their church was divided into factions, named after whoever was the evangelist who baptized them: Paul, Apollos and Cephas – that’s what Paul calls Peter.
They were divided on what they believed and may even have been replaying the disciples’ argument about whose baptism was better. After all Peter was one of the original 12 – plus the admitted leader of the church. And Paul was the most-travelled and most jailed apostle, to whom the Risen Christ appeared – and recruited him for this ministry. SO THERE! Apollos’ converts must have felt a bit left out. Paul doesn’t have a problem with Apollos, by the way, and works out his issues with Peter. They were all laborers for God, doing their work in their turn wherever they went. The problem wasn’t among the leaders – it was the division in the church.
IT is still a problem. UMC. Here we are as the Methodist Church – untied rather than united. Going into the special session of General Conference, many of us hoped that the ONE CHURCH plan proposed by the bishops would prevail. After all, it was the inclusive plan – where we didn’t have to agree on gender and sexuality issues in order to be a church together. But there is a faction among us that couldn’t tolerate tolerance – and so it is likely that we will have a division within the denomination in fact as well as in opinion. Whatever happened to St. Paul’s advice to “Agree with one another so that there are no divisions and you are united in mind and heart.”?
Marriage counselor. A wise marriage counselor explained that there are three categories of disagreement in any significant relationship, and that you need to know which category you are dealing with in order to come to an appropriate solution.
The first category is that stuff that just doesn’t matter. That stuff we can just let go. (You say potato and I say potato… or where you squeeze the toothpaste tubes.) I remember when a Baptist church near us actually split over the color of the sanctuary carpeting – one group wanted red to remind them of Jesus’ blood shed for them every time they gathered for worship – and one group DIDN’T want blood red carpet. It is even possible that there are occasions when we argue instead of acting – so we argue over the best strategy for evangelism instead of actually DOING it.
Anything in a “For Pete’s Sake” category can and should just be dropped so we can get on be BEING the church. In one church, two women, Lee and Ginger, argued every morning while they were getting the coffee ready. It didn’t matter what they argued about – but the general unpleasantness made everyone want to come late to Sunday school to avoid hearing them. These kinds of constant arguments distract other people and create disruption in the church so that new people don’t want to be there – neither do friends and family. We need to stop arguing as a practice.
The second category of disagreements are the ones where we can agree to disagree. Part of what makes this possible is humility and an understanding that no one of us knows everything – and God is still working on each of us if we allow it. We can disagree and continue to walk together, working together for God’s dream. Sometimes one of us will have a new insight that moves us closer together – and hopefully will share it. We can allow each other different opinions because we know “God’s not finished with me yet.” HOWEVER, this is not a defeatist attitude where we don’t engage in any discussion in order to avoid the conflict. If it matters, we can follow Stephen Covey’s principle – “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Make sure that we really understand the other person’s perspective. Sometimes we see things differently because we are looking from different angles, from different experiences. Our goal in discussing this kind of disagreement should be to truly understand the other person’s point of view, even if, at the end of the discussion, we still disagree. But sometimes, if we listen to each other carefully, we will find unique new possibilities. Our stories inform each other and can create a new perspective as we come from different angles. Some call it synergy – some call it a God-thing.
The third kind of disagreement is one where the issue at stake is so fundamental to our core values that we cannot agree to disagree. We cannot “agree to disagree” on things that are just WRONG. Here the stand isn’t LEFT or RIGHT but from our deep, lived, moral faith experience. This is not about chocolate or vanilla – but right and wrong on how we love and respect people.
This is where we have found ourselves as a denomination. We’ve been working at the issue of inclusion of our LGBTQI siblings since the 1970s and there is a group in our church that want to take a stand that others of us believe is just wrong. For most of the churches and Methodists in The United States, we cannot remain in a denomination where the fundamental worth of our LGBTQI siblings is denied. And the stand taken by just barely a majority of the Special Session of General Conference is that they cannot tolerate those of us who believe in the fundamental worth of our LGBTQI siblings. And so we must part – how, when and other details are yet to be determined – but this is one that we cannot live together in the disagreement.
For many of us, the bottom line here is that we choose to FOLLOW Jesus, not just preach the Bible. We want to live in congruence with Jesus, and love each other in Christian community – all of us together.
WILL WILLIMON. Retired Bishop Will Willimon told a story about a men’s prayer breakfast and their conversation on gun control. About half of the people there believed that the only thing that would stop a bad person with a gun was a good person with a gun. The other half believed that we live in a violent society and we spread violence – that guns should be restricted and better licensed. Both opinions were expressed based on self-defense arguments. They asked for Bishop Willimon’s opinion on the subject. He said that he found it interesting that half of the people there thought a good person with a gun was the answer – when they were largely Presbyterian and didn’t really believe that there ARE any good people. But before he could say anything else, a man asked, “Are there any examples of self-defense in the Bible?” Willimon let the question sink in before saying that “No” he couldn’t think of any. We as a church keep being challenged by the text of the Bible – that God lived as a Jewish man who lived non-violently, died violently and without any self-defense, rose from the dead unexpectedly – and then went back to the same people who put him to death in the first place. And THEN he told his disciples to do the SAME THING. No – there’s nothing on self-defense in the Bible. [i]
St. Paul wouldn’t have suggested that we “agree to disagree” on foundational issues of faith – remember this is the most jailed apostle. He couldn’t let things go if they were wrong. I think his advice probably had to do with general contentiousness – or arguments over details like how to evangelize or who baptized you – the “who’s the greatest” kind of argument that distracts from who we are and what we are called to do.
When we cannot “agree to disagree” things are challenging. The Bible doesn’t provide us with easy answers on contemporary issues – but it does contain foundational ideas that push us: self-sacrifice, the worth of every human being, forgiveness, living based on God’s morals not cultural expectations…and it isn’t convenient at all. Our disagreements and divisions are real. And hard. AND That’s where we are.
God’s upside-down kingdom of reversals and valuing those we mostly ignore – those who live on the margins instead of front and center and right out loud – that doesn’t feel comfortable. And we’d like easy answers about where we have divisions and disagreements. But we don’t get easy answers about those either. The best we get is that if we take things down to the moral level -- what’s right and what’s wrong – that some of the policies shake out. Some of our arguments evaporate in the sunlight of God’s love for all people. Other arguments take root and grow when exposed to the light of God’s love. When we find ourselves in those areas of profound disagreement, perhaps this could help:
What would it look like if we put Jesus in the middle of the argument? Where would a crucified God stand?
And how can we best love each other, even when there is unbridgeable difference of opinion?
May we keep asking the right questions – whether or not we find answers. AMEN.
[i] Lecture by Bishop Will Willimon at the Festival of Homiletics.