Monday, January 17, 2011

A Sermon for the Third Week after the Epiphany

"My friend and I have built a wall
  Between us thick and wide;
The stones of it are laid in scorn
  And plastered high with pride.

We talk across the stubborn stones
  So arrogantly tall--
Only we cannot touch our hands
  Since we have built the wall."
     --Elizabeth Morrow

Paul writes in this week’s lectionary text: “I appeal to you that all of you be in agreement and there be no divisions among you.” (I Cor.1. I0-13) Was he writing to Corinth or was he writing to us? He continues: “It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you.” Was he writing to Corinth or was he writing to us?

Charles Talbert, a very fine New Testament scholar, has said that this is the centerpiece of his correspondence to Corinth. I wonder if, of all the words Paul wrote, perhaps they speak to the heart of our time, too.Lack of agreements. Divisions. Quarrels. We know them well. My daughter, who teaches the third grade, says 75% of those in her classroom come from broken homes. And she says the parents have no idea the sad stories of their lives they bring to class. We know it at every level of society. From a Committee meeting of the PTA, to denominational struggles all the way to Washington there is a power struggle going on. And looking out on today’s scene it seems that the common good has been lost in the shuffle of special interests and private causes. But beyond our borders there is a world out there. We can point in any direction from Haiti to Afghanistan and everywhere in between and the pain is palpable.

We’ve heard a lot of talk a bout Bi-partisanship. But we know it is a word and not a reality. One political leader spoke to a member of the opposition party recently and said, “We’ll be happy to work with anyone who agrees with us.” We know about lack of agreement, about divisions, about quarrels. We don’t have to look at Washington we don’t even have to leave church. We have no unearthly idea how to handle conflict. And the Church today is broken and fragmented. Pick any issue and you can stir up a pretty good fight. Interpretation of the Bible. Abortion. Education. Gay rights. Welfare reform. Church-state issues. Multiculturalism. Worship. Women’s concerns. We have called them: culture wars. We know about lack of agreement. Division. Quarrels. It is an uncivil world and the church in Corinth was not part of the solution. They were contributors to the problem. But let me ask you: was Paul talking about Corinth or was he talking about us?

If verses ten through thirteen of that first chapter form the heart of the letter then perhaps we can find some help for these quarrels, these divisions, this lack of agreement. I appeal to you, he said. I beseech you. I urge you—one translation says. It is an old word, appeal. It is used over one hundred times in the New Testament. It means, literally, to call to one’s side. Would you come over here? I’d like to talk to you. Not an over/under conversation. But let’s have a heart-to-heart. I’m worried and I want to talk to you about it.
So their old former Pastor gives them three words of advice. Christian civility in an uncivil world. Was he talking about Corinth or us?


First, he says, Now I appeal to you…that all of you be in agreement. He pleads with them to speak the same language. You remember the Tower of Babel in Genesis. God confused the languages and no one could understand one another. That’s where we are. It is an onomatopoetic term. Babel…babel…babel. Now agreement does not mean to all sound alike, to look alike, all dress alike. But it does mean to hear one another. It does mean to respect one another. It does mean to genuinely care for another.

Can’t you just see the Samaritan stopping to help the wounded, bleeding man? Before I help you, he says I must ask you some questions. The man looks up, through bleary, blood-covered eyes: “Yes” he says. “What is your stand on abortion?” The poor bleeding man just blinks. “Whom did you vote for President?” “Do you have a job—or are you on welfare?” The man slips away while the questions are being asked. Do these questions determine the quality of our help?

Agreement is harmony. Agreement is not singing in unison. Same notes, same sound. What kind of a choir would it is if all were sopranos or all basses? Cecil Sherman, long time Pastor, had some trouble once in a church he served. And so he illustrated where they were. He has a soloist to sing and while she sang the choir talked and laughed and chatted. Nobody listened. Nobody asked them to sing a solo. Then the Director asked the choir to sing. Half sang. The other half didn’t like the music so they just sat there with folded arms and pursed lips. Half the choir was up and half was down. And then the Director was getting desperate. He asked the entire choir to sing. And they did. About four different songs. They all sang their favorite songs at the same time. And it was a mess. It hurt your ears. Pandemonium. And then the Director began to plead: I beseech you…let’s sing together. And this time they all sang the same song. There were altos and basses and tenors and sopranos and it was beautiful. It was harmonious. Not all alike. Not even the same. But a commitment to the music. Paul said: I appeal to you. Be in agreement. Was he talking about Corinth or was he talking about us?


I appeal to you that there be no divisions among you. The word is schism. One translation says that you do no allow yourselves to be split up into parties. That you do not split up into factions. That there will be no cliques in your church. Was he talking about Corinth or was he talking about us? The word schizophrenia comes from this Greek word, schismata. It means to split apart. Words from deeds. Sometimes what we say over here is not what we say over there. There is a vast difference. We call it talking out of both sides of your mouth.

Don’t you have someone in your family with whom you have nothing whatsoever in common? Maybe you disagree on everything politically. Maybe theologically. Maybe it is just a matter of taste. You love country music and they love opera. You are crazy about barbecue and they love sushi. But it’s like to different worlds. Two different worldviews colliding. And yet you drive 500 miles to see them Christmas Day. And you love them and care for them—and they you. How is this possible? Well, you know them. You understand their hang-ups—and they yours. And even though there are some subjects you have to tiptoe around—there are no divisions or splits or gaps really. And you wouldn’t think of talking out of both sides of your mouth about them. Why? There are no divisions about the real thing. I appeal to you, Paul, said that there be no divisions. Was he talking about Corinth or you and me?


He says: I appeal to you that you be united in the same mind and same purpose. All together—you should achieve a unity. This united is a medical term. It means to set a bone. And if you don’t set it you will be crippled for the rest of your life. Sometimes it means to put a joint back in place. But the real definition I like is that of mending nets. Take, he said, the torn, tattered nets and stitch them together back together.

When Jesus first called his first disciples they were kneeling by the sea. They were fishermen. And they were mending their nets. As they dragged the nets in they noticed the tears and the holes made by rocks and stumps and the years and the elements. They were patching the torn nets. For the nets would be of no use whatsoever without that mending. The fish would just slip through.

Be united. Paul said. Was he talking about Corinth or us? Jesus called them from catching fish to the catching of men and women and children, too. They wouldn’t do that with broken nets. And that was what the mending was all about.

John Killinger once invited his congregation to play a little game. He said: Think of five people in this church you would choose, if you had the power, to dismiss to other churches. Maybe you would choose someone because they were meanest, ugliest, most cantankerous church members you know. They are always hurting somebody’s feelings or stirring up trouble or standing in the way of progress. And then he said: What a terrible thing to even suggest in a sermon that we invite others to leave. But then he said: Now think of the five people you would hate most to lose from our church fellowship. Perhaps they are the people who always make you feel good when you meet them. Maybe they are always positive and uplifting in their attitudes. Maybe they are the people who attract others to join our fellowship and always open to new ideas and willing to risk new experiences for the good of the church. And then Killinger said: Have you made your two lists? Good. Then you are ready for the next step. Think about all the other people here playing the game with you. Imagine whether would be on one of their two lists. If you were on one, which list would it be? How does one avoid being on the wrong list?

Paul said: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”Don’t you wonder if Paul was talking about Corinth or was he talking about you and me? I wonder. I really wonder.

(When Coventry Cathedral was bombed by the Germans in the Second World War--nothing was left of the church but a bombed out shell. The people of Coventry decided to rebuild next to the bombed out site. They left what remained of the old church for all to see and remember that painful time.The sculptured piece in the above photograph stands in the ruins of the old Cathedral as a powerful testimony to reconciliation.)

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