Excerpts from a sermon preached on January 31, 2016, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.
The title of today’s sermon is: “Can Anything Bring Us Together?” And let me be clear that when I use the word us I’m not talking about us as a church: I’m talking about us as a nation.
Other than the recent unpleasantness some people call the Civil War has there ever been a time in history when we, as a nation, were so divided? I think I could understand division between Democrats and Republicans, but watch the debates and you’ll see that there is division within the parties. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen so much finger-pointing and name-calling. And when it comes to the issues themselves—things like immigration, gun control, and same-sex marriage—everybody in America has an opinion, and instead of listening to each other to see what we can learn we seem to spend our time shouting at each other, trying to drown out the voices on the other side.
Before I say another word let me assure you that this is not going to be a “political” sermon. When I interviewed with First Baptist, Washington, years ago someone asked, “How do you feel about politics?” It was a good question, especially for a church in that city, where politics is in the very air you breathe. But I said, “I am about the least political person I know. I’m almost apolitical.” And they said, “Good! That’s just what we’re looking for!” Because they had made it a rule years before to check all partisan politics at the door.
It was a good rule for them and I think it’s a good rule for any church. Politics can divide us in ways we don’t need to be divided. Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). He taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). And so, as his followers, our job is to do whatever we can to bring heaven to earth, which is more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work than standing around debating politics. And when it comes to that maybe we could lay aside our own interests and discern the will of God, and then vote for those people and policies that line up most closely with His will, not that any of them will do it perfectly.
My friend Don Flowers is a pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, and this morning he’s preaching on one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not murder.” It seems clear to him that it is not God’s will that we should murder each other, and so he’s putting five white crosses on the church lawn to represent the five people who have been murdered in Charleston so far this year. He wants his congregation to think about those people. He wants them to hear their names. He believes those people were precious to God and that God didn’t want them to be murdered. But I don’t have to think about it very long to imagine what kind of backlash will come, about how many people will assume Don is talking about gun control and trying to take away their Second Amendment rights. If I know Don he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s rights; he just wants the murders to stop. The gun owners I’ve talked to want the same thing. On either side of most issues are people who love their country and want the best for it. They simply have different ideas about what the best is and how it might be accomplished.
We forget that sometimes, and instead of treating each other like fellow Americans we treat each other like enemies. Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post in which I tried, unsuccessfully, to blame it all on talk radio. Someone who commented on that post said: “I think it is too simplistic to blame it on talk radio. Surf the internet for a while and read comments people leave after various articles and talk radio begins to sound like a Sunday school class. It goes beyond those as well. Newspapers, magazines and television all contribute. We have become a deeply divided nation and it only appears to be getting worse. Why? Could it be that in our modern age when we can find out about events happening on the other side of the world faster than what is happening down the street that we are on “information overload?” Are human beings really wired to handle the constant barrage of information that comes our way? Could it be fear that causes us to recoil and back into our safety zones, simply because we can’t process everything fast enough? Safety zones are useful. They are the places where we know and are known, touchstone places where we can process and understand without feeling threatened. Might not the church be a good place to begin the healing of the division?”
Well, it might. But then again it might not.
Not all of you made it to church last week but I talked about that time Jesus preached in his hometown synagogue and said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” I talked about how it’s easier to preach that passage in some places than in others: easier in the homeless shelter, for instance, than the country club. But I said, “Here at First Baptist Church we seem to be such a close-knit family that good news for any of us is good news for all of us. When Jesus says he has good news for the poor, our wealthy members rejoice, because they know and love our poor members. They are part of the family. They want them to hear good news.” But it wasn’t like that in Nazareth. After Jesus preached that sermon the people carried him out to the edge of town and tried to throw him off a cliff, because what they heard him saying was that he had good news—but not for them.
I went on to talk about Paul’s metaphor of the body from 1 Corinthians 12, where he says that we Christians are the body of Christ and individually members of it, that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” any more than the head can say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” We all need each other in the body, and when any member of the body is suffering we all suffer together, whereas if any member of the body is rejoicing we all rejoice together.
It’s a beautiful picture of the church and I think it applies to this one, but Paul used it with the Corinthians because they were divided; deeply divided. They were like the disunited states of America. And apparently it came down to this: that some of them spoke in tongues and others didn’t. And the ones who spoke in tongues began to think of themselves as special and different from the rest. “You only speak in the tongues of men,” they would say: “I speak in the tongues of angels.”
That’s why Paul spends all that time talking about the body in chapter 12: he’s trying to convince these Corinthians that just as the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” the one who speaks in tongues can’t say to the one who doesn’t, “I don’t need you.” He wants them to love and care for one another just as the whole body bends down to minister to a stubbed toe. “All of you make up the body of Christ,” he says, “and all of you are members of it.” He’s not just painting a pretty picture in this chapter; he’s trying to put the dismembered body of Christ back together again. And believe it or not that’s what he’s doing in 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love” chapter.
We often read this text at weddings, mostly because it has the world love in it. “Love is patient, love is kind,” we say, and then smile at the blushing bride and the handsome groom and hope they will have that kind of love for each other. But this text might be better suited for a session of marriage counseling than for a wedding ceremony. It was written for people who were going around thinking they were better than others in the church simply because they had the more obvious spiritual gift. God forbid! Paul writes (with enough force to break off a pencil point): “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love? I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal! And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love? I am nothing! If I give away all my possessions, or even offer my own body as a sacrifice, but do not have love? I gain nothing!”
Can you begin to hear what Paul is getting at? He’s talking directly to those people in the Corinthian church who think they are better than everyone else simply because they have certain spiritual gifts. In another one of his letters he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and says, “The fruit of the spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). And I might add it’s not only the first of the fruits, but the one by which the entire tree is known. “Love is patient,” Paul says (in full admonishment mode): “it doesn’t push and shove its way to the front of the communion line like some of you. Love is kind, it doesn’t step on other people’s backs to get to the top. Love is not envious (as you are) or boastful (as you are) or arrogant (as you are) or rude (as you are). It does not insist on its own way, as some of you do; it is not irritable or resentful, as some of you are; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, Love rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
“But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. [All these spiritual gifts you’re so proud of; they’re not forever, they’re for building up the body of Christ! So stop going around acting like you’ve achieved perfection.] For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child [just as some of you are now doing]; but when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. [I want you to do the same!] For now we see in a mirror, dimly, [we don’t have the full picture], but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part [I’m only human, after all]; but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. So, what will be left to us, when tongues and knowledge and prophecy come to an end? Faith, hope, and love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
That’s a good word, and the more I’ve thought about Paul’s closing argument the more I’ve thought that these may be the three necessary virtues of the church in our time as well as his.
- Faith, Paul says, and that’s what I find myself wanting to say to people who get so exercised about politics, as if this or that election were going to make us or break us. “Have a little faith,” I want to say; “not in politics, and certainly not in politicians, but in God—the One who made heaven and earth, and who has watched over the rise and fall of empires for millennia now!”
- Hope, Paul says, and I want us to have a little of that, too; not hope in the future, but hope for the future. Things don’t have to get worse and worse, necessarily; they can get better and better. We can help them get better and better. But not if we’ve lost our hope. I look at this church, at this country, and wonder why our very best days can’t be ahead of us. We’ve got to hope for that, we’ve got to pray for that! But most of all, we’ve got to…
- Love, Paul says. And this is not only the greatest of these three virtues, it is the real test, because Paul makes it clear that he is not asking us to love people who are just like us, or people who are members of our chosen political party; he is asking us to love those who are not like us; he seems to believe that this is the only thing that can bring us together.
And it’s worth a try, because whatever else we’re doing doesn’t seem to be working. America is more divided than that church in Corinth, with the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you,” and the head saying to the foot, “I don’t need you.” There has to be a better way. Maybe that’s why, after Paul has exhausted the metaphor of the body, he says, “There is a better way”: it is the way of love, and it looks like this:
It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It never ends.
There’s not a political candidate out there who could get elected on that platform, but don’t you wish there were? Don’t you wish someone would stand up and say, “Enough of this. We’ve tried every other way; let’s try the way of love!” Well, someone did, and they crucified him, and yet—2,000 years later—we are still talking about him. His way was the way of love, and something in us still knows it is the only thing…
That can bring us all together.
–Jim Somerville, 2016