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Sunday, May 19, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

Mutuality, Respect, Vulnerability

"Big Questions" Sermon Series

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 148
Acts 11:1–18

This is the third week in our sermon series on big questions that have been asked by members of the congregation. Today’s question is “How can we be church with differing political views?”

We find some parallels between that question and the questions the early followers of Jesus were asking themselves. What makes us who we are? What makes us a community? How do we know the right way to act? How different can we be and still be a community?

Before his vision, Peter had a clear sense of what was right and wrong in terms of what he was supposed to eat and with whom he was supposed to eat. He knew which foods were considered clean and pure and which ones were considered impure and not for eating.

He knew it so instinctively that when God in his vision suggested something different, Peter burst out with, “Absolutely not, Lord!” This happened three times, Peter said. When something happens multiple times in the Bible like that, you know we’re supposed to pay attention.

His whole life Peter had learned what was OK to eat and what was not. The sense of it being wrong to eat certain foods was deeply internalized in his being. His reaction to the idea of changing that was visceral, quick, and emotional. It clearly felt shocking to him, and maybe even a little disgusting, to eat foods that had always been considered unclean. “Absolutely not, Lord!”

In the vision, God challenged Peter’s way of thinking when God said, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” But just hearing God say it three times was not enough to change Peter. He still had to have new experiences that would change his perspective and change his feelings.

He still had to meet the Gentile, Cornelius, and sit at table with him and his whole household and eat the foods that had been so clearly wrong to eat before now. Peter had to share these foods with people he never would have eaten with before. The change in perspective came through that experience that he shared.

But this was so shocking to the Jerusalem church leaders, who didn’t have the same experience. We can imagine their tone when they accused Peter, saying, “You went into the home of the uncircumcised and ate with them!”

Our situation today is not all that different. We just have different players, different characters in the drama, different sets of insiders and outsiders. Who eats at your dinner table? Is it all people who look like you? Is it all people who vote like you?

It’s not surprising that we humans tend to gather with people who are like us in some way. We all want to feel safe. We want to feel that we belong. We want to be affirmed for who we are and how we are in the world. We want to be respected.

And that’s OK. Everyone deserves to be respected. Everyone deserves to know that they belong.

But how do we create a belonging that is strong enough to contain difference and even conflict? How can we be church, for example, with differing political views? (Our question of the day.)

This is a big challenge for several reasons. There are forces and patterns of behavior that erode a sense of belonging.

Like Peter at the beginning of the story, and like the members of the Jerusalem church that accused him, we too can sometimes get caught up in either-or thinking. We can believe that people are divided into precisely distinctive camps. One simple way to say that is “us” and “them.” Since we’re talking about political differences, another way to say this is “Republicans” and “Democrats.”

Either-or thinking is based on the faulty idea that all people in a certain group are the same. Either-or thinking about people is based on stereotypes and assumptions.

Either-or thinking also gets applied to ideas when we think there is a right way and a wrong way of thinking. This becomes especially problematic when we think all of “our” ideas are the right ideas and all of “their” ideas are the wrong ideas.

Either-or thinking is one of the forces that undermines a sense of belonging, because it’s not based on reality. It’s not based on who people really are and all the complexity of who each one of us is as an individual. So people end up feeling labeled, misunderstood, and disrespected.

Another factor that creates conflict and tension in a community has to do with the way our instantaneous reactions and judgments about disagreements are often very visceral. Just as Peter blurted out quickly, “Absolutely not, Lord!” we sometimes want to say, “That’s ridiculous!” or “That’s disgusting!”

These reactions come from an internalized sense of right and wrong that’s based on deep-seated expectations and values for which we may not even have words. These feelings make us say things like, “Some people actually believe . . .” and “Some people are so ridiculous . . .”

I’m talking about political views now, because that’s our topic for today. Have you ever felt the impulse to say something like this about “the other” political party or members of it: “Can you believe . . .” or “That’s so naïve . . .” or “That’s just crazy . . .”?

And on the other hand, have you ever felt defensive because people from “the other” political party spoke dismissively about you? “They always . . .” “Those people . . .” “That whole party is . . .”

I think most of us have been on both sides of this equation at some point. What can we do with all these feelings?

In our society right now, either-or thinking and strong visceral reactions are being encouraged. Inflammatory words and shocking actions are being used to poke us and prod us and stir us up. Learning to recognize the reactions that flare up quickly inside us can help us make proactive choices about how to respond, rather than being at the mercy of our gut reactions.

I’m not suggesting that any of us give up our passion or our compassion. It continues to be important that we live our discipleship in the world by confronting evil whenever we see it. It continues to be important that we ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?” in this political arena and in that court system. It continues to be important that we work for what we believe is right in the world and even in our church.

But self-awareness about our reactions will affect how we can be church together, here and now, with all our differing political views.

This place is different from a court of law. It’s different from a political rally. We don’t need to win arguments here. We don’t need to make our case. We don’t need sound bites to go viral. We don’t need to get votes.

Here we have an opportunity to practice something different. And it does take practice. Here we have an opportunity to be healed by God’s inclusive and transformative perspective on our fellow human beings.

Here we have an opportunity to practice human relationships that are based on something other than either-or thinking and visceral gut reactions.

Like Peter, who encountered Cornelius and ate with him and his whole household, we have the opportunity to encounter each other in a way that is based on mutuality, respect, and vulnerability. All three of these qualities are very important.

First, mutuality requires at least two people who are both committed to an encounter. So if someone is trying to make their case and win their argument and prove that they are right and you are wrong, then probably you are not having a mutual encounter. So maybe you move on from that exchange. Maybe you change the subject or you walk away.

But whenever two or more people are able to enter into a mutually respectful and vulnerable encounter, then God’s inclusive and transformative perspective might just sneak in and bind us to one another as the church.

So, how can we be the church with differing political views? First, seek mutuality. Mutuality means we are really encountering each other and we’re not just encountering our stereotypes about each other.

Peter and Cornelius did this. Cornelius sent three men to invite and bring Peter back to his house, because he wanted to hear what Peter had to say. Peter accepted the invitation and felt that the Holy Spirit was urging him to go. He wanted to meet Cornelius.

Their encounter was mutual, but they also both had the second element that can bind us to one another. They had respect for each other. They both thought they could learn something from the other one.

They both saw that God was involved in the life of the other person. And they both wanted to hear what God might say to them through that other person. God worked through them both, and they were both changed.

Being changed by God through their encounter with each other also required the third element in their interaction. Vulnerability. They both realized that they were missing something. They didn’t need to strike a self-important posture or act like they already knew all the answers.

Even though Peter was summoned as a teacher, he was honest enough and vulnerable enough to admit that he learned something new. He saw God acting in a way that he didn’t expect.

Mutuality, respect, and vulnerability led to many people and perspectives being changed, not just Cornelius and Peter, but all the people around them, too.

Our differences don’t have to drive us apart. Our differences can help us grow in wisdom as individuals and strengthen the bonds of community.

But it’s not easy to do, because we do have our human visceral gut reactions, and we have our human desire to be “right.”

Some of the most challenging spiritual work around this will be asking ourselves, Can I believe that God is at work in this other person’s journey and in their discernment? Can I accept that this person is created in the image of God, even though in this moment I am filled with emotion, disagreement, and discomfort?

And similarly, we’ll have to ask ourselves these hard questions: What am I missing? What if I am wrong about part of this or all of this? What angle or aspect am I minimizing that might be really important?

Reflecting on these questions will help us get to respect and vulnerability. This will help us have those kinds of mutual encounters through which God can work and bind us together in the body of Christ.

We Presbyterians pride ourselves on honoring diverse opinions. We do a lot of our work in committees, which we joke about, but we do it because we know that we need each other. We know that alone we are incomplete. Together we have a broader, stronger view.

We have a line in one of our historic documents that says, “The church protects its own minority point of view as if it were protecting its future, recognizing that the dissenter may well represent the will of God” (Historic Principles, Conscience, and Church Government, adopted by 195th General Assembly (1983) of the Presbyterian Church USA).  

In other words, we know that even having a majority doesn’t guarantee that we are right. We are human. We make mistakes. We need each other, and we are always changing. God is always talking to us and through us to each other.

Our diversity, of all kinds, makes us stronger and better. Our spiritual practice is to live with these differences gracefully, with mutuality, respect, and vulnerability. That means finding the truth about ourselves in ourselves. And it means letting God change and heal us through our encounters with each other.

May God strengthen and soften us for this holy work. Amen.