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Sunday, May 19, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.

Being Church

"Big Questions" Sermon Series

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 133
Micah 6:8
1 Corinthians 12:12–31

On some positions cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?!” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?” But conscience must ask the question, “Is it right?”!

Martin Luther King Jr.

In our “Big Questions” sermon series, the big question for today’s sermon is “How can we be church with differing political views?”The short answer is “with difficulty.”

America is experiencing significant political polarization. This has strained family ties. For the Thanksgiving holiday soon after the 2016 election, many families with differing political perspectives cut short the amount of time they spent together or even canceled previous plans to be together. Thirty-nine percent of families chose to avoid talking politics altogether, including mine (M. Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla, “The Effect of Partisanship and Political Advertising on Close Family Ties,” Science, vol. 360, June 2018). We lived out the Midwest cultural value of being nice. Being nice—or making nice—can lead us to smooth over tension, pretend we have no differences, and avoid revealing our anger or hurt or deepest convictions.

We are tempted to think being nice is a good way to be church. But just being nice keeps relationships on the surface level, shallow and inauthentic. Our trust and understanding of one another doesn’t grow. Moreover, when we avoid talking about social and political issues, it hampers our ability to be God’s instruments of love and justice. In order to discern what God is leading us as a church to say and do, we must study, discuss, and pray together about what is going on in the world. It’s difficult being church. But it is difficulty we are called to embrace.

Micah 6:8 gives the church a succinct mission statement: “Do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

To do justice, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., means being maladjusted to evil. Dr. King said,

There are some things . . . in our world to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. (Martin Luther King Jr., speech givenat the American Psychological Association’s 1967 convention)

For the church to work for justice, we necessarily need to be engaged with social, economic, and political issues. Our faith is not purely a personal matter between God and individuals but a covenantal relationship between God and a whole community of believers, who are called to witness and act in the world.

God’s vision for humanity is still beyond the status quo. So being church means being prophetic. Being church means being agents of change in society. Being church means being political—actively engaged with government and its policies that affect us as a city, state, nation, and globe. Being church means we not only feed persons who are hungry, but we join with them to change systems that keep people impoverished. Being church means we not only tutor students one-to-one, but advocate with city hall for equitable resourcing of public education. Do justice.

Love kindness. Loving kindness goes much deeper than being nice. It involves making a commitment to one another, trusting that God’s love binds us together even with our differences. Loving kindness means showing respect to others, honoring everyone’s dignity. It not only tolerates differences but listens to one another’s stories and perspectives to understand why we feel and think as we do. With loving-kindness we not only treat one another with civility, but we embrace one another as parts of the same body, whose head is Jesus Christ. Loving kindness moves us towards one another as God’s Beloved Community. In a world of divisiveness and violence, a strong witness is needed by the church of Jesus Christ to relate to one another differently through a transformed way of living.

The reality is we cannot be church without differing political views. We have different life experiences, different cultural backgrounds, and different worldviews. We listen to different news sources and come to different conclusions. Yet God chose to knit us together as one body. That’s how God purposely designs the church.

When the early church in Corinth was experiencing conflict, the Apostle Paul told them, “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” All the individual parts of the body are needed. If we were all ears—“if the whole body were hearing”—where would the sense of smell be? If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as God chose.” God purposely calls together a variety of people to fulfill different roles as the church, one Body of Christ. In the Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, Republicans or Democrats or Independents—and made to drink of one Spirit. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are a variety of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:4–7).

The church is God’s radical inclusion of diversity as one body of Christ. We may wish we could choose who belongs to the same church we do, just as we may sometimes wish we could choose our blood relatives. But it is God who knits us together as one family of faith. We have a shared identity sealed in our baptism, as people of one faith and one Lord.

But how can we live out this shared identity? How can we be church so that others will know we are Christian by our love?

We can come together regularly to worship as one community, celebrating our unity around one table, the Lord’s Supper. There we remember that Jesus Christ gave his life for us all and chose all of us to be his disciples. Worshiping binds us together through shared experience of our common foundation of faith.

We can engage in ongoing praying and wrestling together with what God is calling us to be and do. We must educate ourselves about important social and political matters for our witness in the world.

We also need to articulate clearly and act upon the values and beliefs that are the bedrock of our faith. Soon after the 2016 election, the pastoral staff of Fourth Church sent a letter to all church members. The letter included this:

Ultimately, our faith does not belong to the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, or, frankly, to any government or government party. It is built upon the rock that is Christ’s love and justice, and that is what guides us as disciples.

. . . Fourth Church will continue to be a “Light in the City,” doing our best to reflect God’s light and love with all those both inside and outside our congregation who feel forgotten, diminished, and marginalized. When our elected officials and policies work to uphold the health, worth, dignity, and prosperity of all people regardless of race, religion, gender, class, citizenship, ableness, and sexual orientation, we will gladly work with and alongside them. When our elected officials and policies fall short of these great aims, we will be advocates and witnesses for social justice—not in order to blame or to demonize, but rather to follow God’s command to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”

We can also learn to listen in order to understand one another. Associate Pastor Nannette Sawyer has been organizing Deep Listening Dinners in which people of Fourth Church move towards one another by engaging in honest dialogue. The purpose is not to find agreement but to grow in trust, respect, and understanding. Such encounters allow participants to see the gifts God has given each person for the common good. Thus we build community, being church together.

Micah 6:8 also calls us to “walk humbly with our God.” I especially learned what this means when I served on a task force appointed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), at a time when our denomination was torn apart by opposing views on whether persons who are gay or lesbian could be ordained. We were called the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity, whose purpose was to discern ways that the church can live more faithfully in the face of deep disagreements.

The task force intentionally consisted of twenty members quite diverse in many ways, including theological and political viewpoints. We met over a five-year period. We spent much of our time deepening our relationships with God and one another through praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, studying scripture, listening to one another, and collaboratively working to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit. We studied our common heritage of Presbyterian history and polity as well as a variety of theological perspectives. We hung out together. Even though many of us continued to hold the same perspectives we initially brought to the task force, we were all greatly enriched and changed by our work together. As our final report said,

Our experience of Christian faith and life has been extended and expanded. Our trust in other Presbyterians and our respect for differing perspectives has deepened. Most of all, our joy in believing has been greatly increased by the work of the Holy Spirit. Our gratitude for the church has grown because of the honesty, humility, and faithfulness of the other members of the task force. . . . We can give thanks with full hearts for the gift of the church we have already received because we have so intensely experienced this gift in our encounters with one another. (Final Report of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), p. 13)

One of the recommendations the task force made drew upon one of the foundational principles of our Presbyterian polity. It is that “God alone is Lord of the conscience under the authority of scripture.” Presbyterian polity has historically recognized that councils, or governing bodies, of the church may err. Thus, the church has affirmed the “rights of private judgment.” At the same time, faithful witness to the unity of the body requires mutual accountability and communal discernment of the working of the Spirit. In 1729, the Presbyterian Church adopted Westminster standards for ordination, to which all ministers were expected to ascribe. Immediately the issue of freedom of conscience arose, because some ministers considered certain aspects of the standards to be in variance with the scriptures. The synod resolved this conflict of conscience by allowing these ministers, and later candidates for ministry, to declare publicly their disagreements, or “scruples.” Then an examining body would determine whether or not the candidate’s scruple concerned an essential article of the church’s doctrine, worship, or government. If it was not deemed essential, space was made. In this way, our denomination has long affirmed both that certain beliefs and practices are essential for the church’s theological integrity and that “differences have always existed and been allowed.”

Our polity reflects what it means to walk humbly with our God. In humility, we acknowledge we may not always be right. The majority may not always be right. Councils of the church may err. As a church, we have, and will again, change our minds about what Jesus Christ calls us to be and do. God alone is Lord of the conscience. We must keep walking humbly with God—making space for one another as we keep seeking God’s guidance together.

How can we be church with differing political views? With difficulty. God calls us to embrace that difficulty. That’s the only way the church will fulfill what God requires of us: to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Amen.