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Sunday, May 19, 2019 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

One Body? The Question of Political Diversity in Church

"Big Questions" Sermon Series

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 148
1 Corinthians 12:12–31

One of the most destructive mistakes we Christians make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationship, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.

Rachel Held Evans

The late William Sloane Coffin, former Yale chaplain and senior pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, once preached this:

It’s wrong for preachers on every issue to stand as if at Armageddon battling for the Lord. I know that tolerance is a tricky business. Some people actually think that tolerance means being so broadminded that your brains fall out. But I’m worried about growing intolerance in the church. . . . The temptation to become moralistic is strong, for it is emotionally satisfying to have enemies rather than problems. It is emotionally satisfying to seek out culprits rather than flaws in the system. God knows it’s emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that [kind of] righteousness that nourishes itself in the blood of sinners. But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can also be spiritually devastating. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, pp. 151–152)

I tried this week to figure out exactly when Dr. Coffin preached such prescient words, but I had no luck. Regardless, even if he preached them in his time at Riverside in the 1980s or when he was at Yale in the 1970s, he could have preached them just yesterday, for his insight continues to shimmer with truth.

My guess is that many of you found your heads nodding in agreement, particularly when he expressed his concern about the growing intolerance within the body called church. I make that assumption because quite a few of you turned in the question with which we are wrestling today as a part of our “Big Questions” sermon series: How can we be church with differing political views?

This question feels urgent for many of us today. For example, I have spoken with quite a few of you about the challenge of preaching in today’s highly partisan and polarized environment. Leading up to the presidential election in 2016, our collective anxiety got to the point when I often felt like if I said “Jesus tells us to love our neighbor,” someone would inevitably accuse me of being pro-this or anti-that.

A reality is that our partisan radars have been turned up to high alert for quite a while now, so much so that we can hear one word or one sentence said in a sermon, or in a prayer, or in a Sunday school class, or around a table in our Coffee Hour, and we immediately make a decision that that person is either for us or against us, no nuance or ambiguity allowed. And please notice I am saying “we.” I, personally, fall into the same trap on a regular basis. We stand together in this dilemma. But it does not help any of us that the echo chambers of Fox News, MSNBC, and Facebook, just to name a few, are so adept at fanning the flames. More and more, it feels like we are being set up to be divided, socialized to look first for all the ways we do not agree, for all the ways we are different, for all the ways we are threatened by the other.

And because we often experience that out there, it is not a surprise, then, that many of us come into this space of worship with either a conscious or unconscious assumption that in order to be a church together, in order to be a healthy community, we will need to all tacitly agree on just about everything, including everything we hear from the pulpit. Yet to be candid, that is not a realistic assumption. As I now tell all of our new members, if you expect to agree with everything that I or my colleagues preach, then there is a high likelihood that you are going to be very disappointed. But I believe that underneath that honest desire for uniformity of perspective is the fear that if that does not exist, if we don’t agree—especially on important social issues or biblical interpretation—then somehow that means we do not have a place here; that we will not be truly welcomed for who we are. I hear that fear.

The truth is that because we live in such a fractured climate, we are always in danger of losing touch with the promise that as long as our hearts are one in Christ, our minds don’t have to be. And that danger exists in part because in just about every other arena in our lives, including around the family dinner table, we are constantly marinating in the message that those with whom we disagree might not even have a heart, at least not one that could possibly be warm towards us. That brings us to another helpful sermon from Bill Coffin in the mid-1980s. Ruminating on the corroding forces of discord and distrust, especially when they are unleashed within the church, he preached this:

Church members must constantly remember that the whole gospel is summed up in the three-word imperative “Love one another.” And in church we should concentrate our love not [only] on the lonely and unloved, the failing and the fallen; we must also love those with whom we disagree. Creative tension is good for a church. We can take disagreement; friendship, after all, includes salt and vinegar as well as sugar. . . . When all of us are immigrants in God’s mighty empire, it does not behoove us to make like minor vassals in charge of our own little fiefs. (William Sloane Coffin, Riverside Sermons, vol. 2, p. 308)

He had a way with words, didn’t he?

Yet despite this challenge, we are to take heart. Why? Because the church has been here before, and it has been here often. Struggling with political and theological differences within the body has been a part of the fabric of congregational life from our very beginning. And although there are no church fights currently going on within our particular congregation called Fourth Church, church fights have been a part of our story beginning in the New Testament. There has never been a time in the church’s life when everything was sunshine and roses, expect possibly right after Pentecost when Acts reports those first Christians shared everything in common and praised God with glad and generous hearts 24/7. Other than that brief and shining moment, we have always wrestled with how to be church when we have different points of view.

Just consider this church at Corinth, the one to whom Paul wrote the letter we heard today. This entire letter represents Paul’s theological wrestling with a deep wound of division within that particular church family. While we are not sure of all of the points of division, we know quite a few, because of Paul’s response to them. We know the congregation of Corinth contained the divisions of social and economic class. That church family started to mirror the hierarchical arrangements of their larger culture, with the elites being the ones that called all the shots and did their own thing while everyone else just had to deal with the discrepancy of power and influence.

And we also know they had their own political and philosophical diversity that contributed to their growing atmosphere of divisiveness. Furthermore, we know that some of them even had conflicts with their preacher and founder, Paul himself. Some of the Corinthian church members found him to be rather ineffectual in his preaching style and too physically diminutive for the person they envisioned being their spiritual leader. They thought he was weak—physically and intellectually. As Chuck Campbell has written, “Anxiety and fear were oozing from the church’s wound.” And into this wounding and woundedness comes Paul. After confronting some of their division head-on in previous chapters, he gets to this part of the letter we read today—the part of the letter that speaks of what it means to be the body of Christ.

I remember the first time I honestly heard this part of the letter. Growing up in church, I had heard the words my whole life, but the first time I really heard the meaning of the words was sitting around the Session table of the first congregation in which I served. I arrived in that congregation in May, having said yes to them the prior December. Unfortunately, in those five in-between months, conflicts that had been long simmering just beneath the surface fully erupted. Most of the conflicts were theological and political.

The church fight I remember most vividly was when the Session was debating whether or not an interfaith Thanksgiving observance (we did not call it a worship service) could happen in our church’s sanctuary. Some of our church elders were very upset at the idea of Muslims and people of other religious traditions praying in “our” space. Other elders were very upset that their fellow Session members were upset. “Jesus was Jewish,” one finally exclaimed in deep frustration. When we took the vote about whether or not to do it, the vote was 18 to 15 in favor and the three clergy were the unintended tie-breakers. It was not a good time in the life of that church.

Yet it was around that Session table during this time of painful conflict when I encountered the Spirit through Paul’s words. I offered the devotion at one of those meetings. “Now you are the body of Christ,” I read out loud, “and individually members of it.” All of the sudden, sitting in that thick atmosphere of pain and struggle, it struck me that Paul was proclaiming a reality that frankly did not depend on my agreement with it. We were the body of Christ—regardless if we were angry with each other or did not like each other or completely and vehemently disagreed with each other or purposefully tried to hurt each other. God had made us the body of Christ. Not because we signed up for it or voted on it or even lived it out. We were the body of Christ because that was what God made us to be.

Through these words, Paul was pointing out that God had interrupted the status quo of Corinth: the status quo that proclaimed some people were more important than others; the status quo that proclaimed that not everyone deserved to be at the same table together; the status quo that proclaimed that they had to all be just alike in order to make it work. God had interrupted all of that and said, “No. I am creating a new and different community, one that is composed of all of you in all of your differences, fully embracing your diversity of perspectives and class and ethnicity and gender and gifts. And furthermore, your unity will not be grounded in your human efforts but only in the power of my Spirit. You are the body of Christ. Period. This is who you are. So start living like it.”

It is this Pauline theology that leads to our Presbyterian understanding of church—our ecclesiology that proclaims that the church is not “like a club or a sorority or fraternity or a group of like-minded people who enjoy each other’s company, form an organization for their mutual benefit and enjoyment, and set up rules of membership to suit themselves.” A church is not just another voluntary collection of individual members. Rather, by the creative impulse of God and the wild power of the Holy Spirit, we are the living, breathing body of Christ in this world. And through us, God has chosen to be known. Through us, Christ continues his presence and work in the world. This is what God has done without seeking our approval. Isn’t that incredible?

How can we be a church with differing political views? My response is how can we not? For I believe it is not actually up to us as to whether or not that is possible. God has already declared it so. Our decision, then, is to figure out how we will respond to that gift and challenge. Will we do everything we can to create a community of generous listening—a community where we go into difficult conversations assuming the goodness and good intention of the other because they, like we, are different parts of the same body? Will we prioritize the equity and inclusion of all?

Will we do what we can to build up relationships with each other? Will we be quick to forgive when we hurt each other? Will we be quick to apologize when we say something stupid or careless? Will we choose to offer compassion and to be gentle? Will we challenge each other in love when we start to mirror the divisiveness of our world? Will we do whatever we can to build up the body of Christ rather than tear it down? Despite any of our differences, will we have equal concern for each other? Will we live like the body of Christ that we are?

Again, Dr. Coffin: “Human unity is not something we are called on to create, only to recognize. God made us one, and Christ died to keep us that way.” We are the body of Christ. May we live that out in such a way that people notice and want to be a part of it. It is who we are. Amen.