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Sunday, January 22, 2017 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Our Witness

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 27
Isaiah 9:1–4
1 Corinthians 1:10–18

The subversive part of worship is that we come together so that in the very
midst of our pain and the pain of the world around us, we can still praise God.
By putting God at the very center of our singing and praying, a different world
is offered to us, and this very different world—for which the human community yearns—is entrusted to us.

Michael Allwein, "Making Bold Claims!"

A friend of mine, Rebecca Messmann, told a story in her sermon last week about preacher and teacher Tom Long. Someone once asked Dr. Long, “Who is your favorite biblical character?” The questioner probably thought the response would be something like Jesus or John the Baptist. But instead, Dr. Long replied, “Chloe,” because Chloe was the person who made sure to tell Paul what was really going on in the church in Corinth. You heard evidence of that in our scripture today. Verse 11: “for it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” Dr. Long remarked he appreciated Chloe the most because she was the one who always had her ear to the ground, who heard the parking lot conversations, who paid attention to both the petty arguments as well as the more substantial ones taking place within the congregation. And she would let Paul know so he could pastorally respond. Thus Chloe, Paul’s confidant, is one of Tom Long’s favorite people in the Bible.

I sure wish we needed a Chloe around these days. I wish the divisions within the Church (big C) were hidden enough that we needed to depend on a truth-teller like Chloe to let us know trouble was afoot. Unfortunately, though, in this time of religious life, the divisions within the Christian Church are so clear, so painfully obvious, that Chloe is not currently needed, for the same battle lines that are crisscrossing our country are also dissecting the church or, at least, trying to.

For example, we have been witnessing these dissecting battle lines—mirror images of national stresses and strains—play out in our sister denomination, the Episcopal tradition. Anger erupted when it was announced that the Washington National Cathedral, an Episcopal house of worship, would host the inauguration prayer service, with their choir leading the music. Some Episcopalians declared that hosting the prayer service was the correct thing to do. It is what they have done for each incoming administration since 1933. Other Episcopalians, though, saw the decision as a sellout to power at best; abandoning the message of the gospel at worst, especially because a sermon was not preached as a part of the service. Social media debate was strong and, at times, rather ruthless. I imagine it still is.

But the Episcopalians are not the only ones simmering in turmoil. They are not the only ones living out the deep fissures in our country that have been made clear in the last presidential election. We, Presbyterians, are far from being immune to it. Another example: this past week, Scott Black Johnston, the pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, a white man of Scottish descent, went with his friend and colleague Patrick O’Connor, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens, a black man of West Indies descent, to our new president’s office in Trump Tower, located across the street from Fifth Avenue Church. They went in order to talk to him and pray with him.

Our new president was baptized at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, Queens, the church Patrick now pastors. It was his mother’s church, and at that time, it was a congregation made up of immigrants primarily from Scotland. Scott, the pastor of Fifth Avenue Church, also has family connections with the church in Queens. His father and uncles were baptized in the same font as our new president. Today, in 2017, the church is still primarily made up of immigrants. But these days the immigrants are predominately from Africa and the Caribbean. It is a different congregation than it was in 1955 when the president graduated from its Sunday school program but one that is still a vibrant witness to God’s love and justice.

Given the layered connections both Scott and Patrick had with the then-president-elect, they felt called to make sure he knew that many of the religious voices from whom he was hearing, like Franklin Graham and others, only represented one very particular perspective on the Christian tradition. They wanted the then-president-elect to know other theological perspectives exist within the Christian family. A great many churches are purple, rather than only red or blue. In particular, they wanted him to hear of our Presbyterian passion for social justice and for equal rights; our concern for the poor and the refugee; our desire to work for peace and the healing of creation, etc. So they spoke with him about those things and ended with prayer.

Both pastors felt making the visit was a faithful thing for them to do as local Presbyterian ministers with connections to the president’s family. Soon, news got out about the visit, some of it released by Fifth Avenue itself, later picked up and amplified by CNN. And, as with the National Cathedral, reaction was swift. As expected, some people who do not share a perspective of faith found the whole thing laughable and expressed as much on the CNN post. But our own Presbyterian family had dramatically different reactions to it, as well.

Some, including some of you, were thankful for their willingness to talk with the president and to express a more mainstream Presbyterian perspective on the difficult and divisive issues our country is facing—the issues that drove many folks into the streets yesterday morning. But others, maybe including some of you, were incensed by the visit and strongly felt Scott and Patrick had sold out their integrity and their future chance to speak truth to power.

Full disclosure: I have friends whom I respect on both sides, and it has been painful to experience the deep disappointment each side has with the other. But in addition, it got personal for me, because Scott is one of my dear friends, and he was receiving some strong condemnation from within our larger Presbyterian family.

As all of that played out so publicly, I found myself wishing our current debates were the kind of milder disagreements we needed a Chloe to help us detect and heal. I expect that day will come, but probably not soon. The body of Christ is never unaffected by the strains and stresses of our national life. When battle lines divide our country, they often dissect the church body too, or at least try to.

It could be, though, that Paul felt as dismayed by the Corinthian quarreling as we might feel about the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and other Christian infighting currently occurring in our day. The Corinthians were, after all, also fighting about issues important to them, that defined who they felt called to be: how to worship, human sexuality, who could or could not be an authority in the church. Inevitably some of that disagreement must have become rancorous. It is not hard to imagine one side accusing the other of abandoning the gospel Paul had preached while the other side shot back in a similar way. Church fights have a tendency to get really personal really fast.

And indeed, we hear in Paul’s words hints of painful division, factionalism, within that church body. People were beginning to line up behind whoever had baptized them instead of lining up together behind the one in whose name they had been baptized: Jesus. “Has Christ been divided?” Paul asked, clearly incensed. Has Christ been divided? The unspoken response to that question is, of course not. But that one question, spat out angrily by Paul, challenges us just as much as it challenged the church at Corinth. For if we, those called to be a part of the body of Christ, are divided and set against each other, trying to tear down each other, how will we be able to fully reflect, to fully live like, to fully love like the one whose body we are called to re-present to the world?

Now let’s pause. We all know there are indeed times when division or conflict occurs due to honest differences of opinion or conviction. We are certainly living in those kinds of times. But this is actually one of the things that we Presbyterians do best: disagree with each other, debate with each other, argue with each other. That is because we firmly believe, as it states in our denomination’s foundational documents, that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Furthermore, as our denomination’s constitution puts it, people of good faith will differ from each other and are thus encouraged to show mutual forbearance and respect for each other.

An easy example: many of us from Fourth Church marched yesterday here in Chicago and felt it was a glorious and positive expression of democracy. Others of us would never have done such a thing and disagree with it with every fiber of their beings. OK, so let’s do what we Presbyterians do and choose to have respectful discussions or healthy debates with each other, understanding that, regardless, we are still family because God made it that way. Why do you think Paul said “brothers and sisters in Christ” every chance he got? He wanted to remind them they were tied together even when they did not want to be. He wanted to remind them they were Christians first. They were Corinthians, or those baptized by Apollos or Cephas or Paul, second.

That reminder was and is important, for when division or conflict becomes rancorous or vengeful in the church, when it sets us against each other, when it leads us to try and tear each other down, as it appeared to be in the church of Corinth, as I have seen this week within the Episcopalian branch of our family as well as in our own Presbyterian clan, that kind of division compromises the church’s ability to be a witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ. Rancorous division, the kind of bitter division that has us turning on each other, only leads to people outside the church saying, “Goodness, see how those Christians are mean to each other?” rather than “See how they love each other.” What kind of a witness to our already very divided world is that? It’s not! It’s only a mirror image of what we experience everywhere else.

In her sermon last week, Rebecca Messmann told how exhausted she has been all week. She has two little kids who chose this week to be a week of arguing. As she put it, “This week involved the battle of the bigger orange plate, the great Netflix uprising, and the last stand about the last cinnamon waffle.” By Friday, she was done. So she called her parents for some advice. “Dad,” she asked, “what did you and mom do when Katie and I would fight each other? How did you avoid losing your temper with us and getting sucked into our skirmishes?” Her father replied that they did lose their temper, just not at their girls. “But,” he paused, “I think that if you start a sentence with ‘Child of God,’ you end up changing what you ultimately say. If you start the sentence with ‘Child of God,’ even in your head, it just comes out better and there are some things you just don’t say.”

I think Paul wanted his church folk to remember to begin each sentence about the other with the spoken or unspoken phrase “Child of God” as they engaged in their debates over issues of identity and mission, for Paul was convinced that if he could just remind them they had already been saved by the foolish cross, already been reconciled not only to God but also to each other, then they would realize that what drew that community, that body of Christ, together was stronger than all the forces that threatened to pull them apart.

Paul desired to explicitly remind the people that the one with whom they felt divided or with whom they deeply disagreed or for whom they even held anger or mistrust, that one was just as created in God’s image as they were. That one was just as much a child of God as they were, and living out that recognition, even when it was so hard to do, had the potential of drawing them more strongly together in God’s love, better able to resist whatever forces threatened to pull them apart as the battle lines of their world grew closer and closer and grew deeper and more rigid. They were Christians first. They were Corinthians, those baptized by Apollos or Cephas or Paul, second. But always Christians first.

Friends, on this inauguration weekend, I am not sure what is ahead of us as a nation, as a city, as a denomination, as a local congregation. I know that hundreds of thousands of people gathered yesterday out of a concern that somehow we were going to be pulled apart or at least the divisions in our country and city were going to keep getting deeper and more rancorous rather than less. So I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, siblings in Christ, to not let that same kind of mean division that sets people against each other take place within this particular body. Can we disagree with each other, strongly and passionately? Absolutely, and I have no doubt that we will.

But God alone is Lord of the conscience, and people of good faith will differ from each other on a variety of different issues. At the same time, as those who follow a Christ who cannot be divided, we are charged to demonstrate mutual forbearance and respect for each other, mentally beginning each sentence about each other with the phrase “Child of God,” hoping that that family reminder might reframe our vision or gentle our words. For we too are Christians first. We are Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Independents, etc., second. But always and only Christian first.

And for those of us who are called to be a part of the body of Christ, who are called into Christian discipleship, we have a responsibility to our larger world to show what God’s love looks like in flesh and blood, shared among people who might deeply disagree with each other, maybe even actively work on totally different sides of the same issue but who, through the foolishness of the cross, have been reconciled both to God and to one another and created to demonstrate that reconciliation with love. For Christ is not divided. In these divisive days, may we do all we can to be faithful witnesses to that truth. For we are always Christians first.