Sermon: January 23, 2011

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Sermon Details
Sermon Title: 
Our Unity Is in Christ
Sermon Date: 
January 23, 2011
Rev. Curt Anderson
Sermon Text: 
I Corinthians 1:10-31
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I was called as the Associate Minister of Woodland Church in Michigan, in 1977, and I served there for 5 years. In the years before I came, they had been through a significant and hurtful church fight.

The end result was that a vote was held to fire the Associate Minister, and it passed; and a vote was held to fire the Senior Minister, and it barely failed. My coming as the new Associate Minister was supposed to heal all the wounds which had resulted from those fights. Good luck.

In spite of the turbulent atmosphere at that church – which continued all the time I was there – a few of the friendships we made have lasted over time.

I have continued to read their church newsletter and stay in touch with a few of those folks.

And the same pattern that I saw when I was there has repeated itself again and again – periods of relative calm on the surface (with tensions underneath) broken by the occasional outburst of divisive, loud, hurtful conflict.

One person says it’s the fault of ministers. Another says it’s the fault of those who are always finding fault with the ministers. The way they talk about each other is revealing:

If David Harder and his friends could lay off the clergy for awhile, we could solve these problems. If Chuck LeDunn and those others would just act responsibly, we could work this out. If the minister and the church office would quit treating people in an emotionally abusive manner, this wouldn’t be happening.

If only Paul’s people, or Apollos’ people, or Cephas’ people would listen to reason, everything would be all right.

Has Christ been divided? Was David Harder crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Chuck LeDunn?

Of course not, Paul says. Your unity and salvation are not in the wisdom and power of human beings. They are in the self-giving grace of God, which is known, first, in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Your unity and salvation are not in Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas; not in David Harder, or Chuck LeDunn, or a church staff person.Your unity and salvation are in Jesus Christ – whom we know, first and foremost, through the Cross.

For me, watching what has been happening at Woodland Church has been like watching Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth, play out over a period of 35 years.

In that play, once Macbeth has met the witches and been given the vision of becoming king, his eventual downfall in that effort seems inexorable and inevitable.

Woodland Church’s average worship attendance has dropped from over 200 to under 100. Church school enrollment has gone from 160 to 40. The endowment, which was over half a million dollars 10 years ago, is at $200,000, today.

Let me say this next sentence very clearly. These things are not because of bad individual church decisions or policies. It’s not: If only the right people had been in charge, or, if only the right decisions had been made, everything would be all right, now.

It is that people put their faith in human reasoning, human wisdom, human power. It is that people trusted in themselves, rather than trusting themselves to Jesus Christ.

If we just did what Apollos said we should do, then everything would be O.K. If we just followed Cephas and didn’t get led off-track, things would work out for the best.

No, Paul says. Here is the real center of our hope:

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God….

God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.

The center of the church’s life – our hope to be a faithful people – does not come from purely human wisdom. It comes from Christ. And it comes from a way of being that is modeled in the Cross: the giving up of oneself for another; sometimes the giving up of ones own ideas in order to be led by Christ.

The certainty that the way they do it in education is the way we should do it here, or that the way it is done in business is the way we should do it here, or that the way it is done in government is the way we should do it here – all of these things, far from being the unity and salvation of the church, are the loss of the church’s vital center and its faithful mission.

The church’s center is God’s gift of Jesus Christ as he is known to us through the Cross. The church is an organization that gives of itself, for the goodness and betterment of others. And we, individual Christians, are people who give of ourselves.

We are not people who proclaim our own wisdom and knowledge, but people who listen to Christ and learn from Christ. There is deep humility in us because Christ is the center, and we are not.

NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote something recently that is very much in line with this. He was commenting positively on President Obama’s speech in Tucson. In talking about civility in public discourse, he said this:

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. What are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance. Every sensible person … knows their work is laced with failure…. Even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary, and it’s impossible to capture all of it….

So this is where civility comes from – from a sense of personal modesty. It is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are.

We know how limited we are, how small our own wisdom is, because we have before us our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ is the goal of our lives, and he is the light on the path toward that goal.

In his column, David Brooks was talking about civility in public and political discourse; but his sense of our limited ability to grasp the truth, and the sins and failures which weave through even our best efforts, accords very well with Paul’s understanding that our own, individual human wisdom just isn’t enough.

I quoted David Brooks to help us understand our own need for modesty and humility, our own need to acknowledge that Christ is the way and we are not.

What are some ways we can turn to Christ and not rely solely on ourselves and our own thoughts and ideas?

  1. We can read the Bible. We could choose one of the gospels, read it through, and discuss it with somebody.
  2. We can pray regularly. In addition to impromptu times of prayer during the day, we can set aside even just five minutes for personal and private meditation and prayer.
  3. We can listen to others, and let their ideas percolate, before we respond. We have more ears than mouths, which probably means we are supposed to listen more than speak.
  4. We can stop believing that our way is the only way. As Paul says in another place: Love does not insist on its own way.
  5. We can practice what Dorothy Butler-Bass calls, “asking God-questions rather than I-questions.” Not, “What do I want, or what do I think?” Rather, “What does God want? What does God think? What would Christ have me do?”
  6. We can think about how the actions we recommend or undertake will affect the least of these, my brothers and sisters. And doing that, we can then try to modify or adapt our actions so they are positively beneficial to those who are less-advantaged than ourselves.
  7. We can practice saying: I’m sorry. My sense is that many of us do things each day that we may not notice, but that impinge on the space or the being or the sense-of-self of other people. We can make an effort to notice what we are doing, and then say, I’m sorry.

I deeply believe that these practices, and others like them, can lead us toward personal humility – toward a recognition that Christ is the guide and leader in all we think and say and do.

One of the things that gives me pause, as I look at the situation at Woodland Church, is that we are so much like them: highly-educated, successful, open and affirming, justice-oriented, mostly people who approach the world through our heads.

They are good people. They are like us. But they have been caught, for years, most them, believing they each know the answers, each believing he or she has the best and only way forward.

In its downward spiral, I compared the devastation happening there to Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth. Contrary to Macbeth, however, a church like Woodland does not have to die. But it has to start over at a very difficult place:

Separately and together, people have to acknowledge their own sins and failures, and permanently commit themselves to very different practices in their life together.

That is very hard to do. Habits and ways of relating to others can be very difficult to change. And a culture which exalts the individual just exacerbates this sense of thinking too highly of ourselves, and our own powers and abilities.

But change and growth are possible. That’s the foundation of what we believe a relationship with Jesus Christ is like. We grow in our understanding of that relationship, and in our willingness to commit ourselves to Christ.

We grow together, as we are the church together. We are the body of Christ together.

John Calvin said: Our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, there’s the son, all proud and sure of himself, running off to the Far Country with his share of the inheritance; then returning, humble and repentant, changed and forgiven.

And there’s the Father, all the time waiting for his son – confident that the Far Country of Death will not be the last word.

That is our belief, also: and our hope. Amen.