Updated: Aug 4, 2020
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Good morning, I’m Pastor Margaret Gillikin. In the familiar scripture you just heard, the Apostle Paul shared with the church in Corinth HOW they were to love each other in Christ. Of particular concern to him was that they stop treating each other differently because of wealth and class, and that they stop competing over whose spiritual gifts were more valuable to the community of faith than others. It was as if they had heard that all were equal, but had turned it into one of those “yeah, but” escape hatches we human beings are so fond of. Theirs was, “Yeah, but some of us are MORE equal than others.” Uh huh. Are you hearing the problem?
It’s important for us to adjust our ears for this text, accustomed as we are to hearing it shared at weddings, and remember that it was written for an ordinary congregation made up of ordinary human beings who weren’t all of the same mind or behavior. They had things in common, sure, the most important of which is that they had heard the story of Jesus, and found it powerful and life-giving enough to devote themselves to him and this group of believers who were also willing and wanting to follow Him.
The challenge, of course, is that just because a random group of people have all joined forces because they want to travel in the same direction, this doesn’t mean they actually do so graciously or easily. I mean, really… whose map are we using? Are you SURE that one was made by a knowledgeable cartographer? This one in my hands was made by my brother-in-law’s cousin who has traveled these roads for years and knows all the tricky spots. And about that time-table of yours… who decided on that start time? Don’t you know that “some people” would rather do it a different way?
You get the picture. It is natural for groups to go through a process of storming and forming (as its officially called sociologically), or fussing and fighting as my grandma called it, before settling into a rhythm and process that is mostly workable. As normal as this is, Paul wasn’t having it. He wasn’t willing to settle for ordinary. For the Corinthians, and other communities following Jesus, he saw the need to be more, to be better, to be shaped not only in belief by the love of God in Jesus Christ, but also in action. It wasn’t enough to say you love God or pay lip service to Jesus when he said “love your neighbor” by replying “yes, sir.” We actually need to DO these things!
It’s a high calling, my friends. Think back to some of the things Paul said about what love in action looks like. It isn’t prideful. There’s no bragging involved. Wait. Does that mean it’s not a competition, and there’s no “winning” either? Love isn’t selfish or rude. Does that mean then that love is self-less and kind? Does that mean that love is even self-sacrificing, such that we place the needs and preferences of others above our own? Paul has this bit where he talks about putting aside childish ways. Does that mean that love in action equals “adulting?!” Doesn’t adulting basically boil down to being responsible and doing things we’re supposed to even if we don’t want to? But… but… but… these are pretty words and all… but are they starting to sound like WORK to anyone else? Anyone? Bueller?
For anyone who isn’t feeling confronted yet, let me remind you that while Paul is talking about HOW to love, we also need to keep in mind that Jesus was quite specific about WHO to love. He went into great detail both in his teaching and in his lived example of demonstrating who the poor, the captives and the oppressed were that God loved and that he called his followers to love as well. Here’s the thing, though, when those poor, captive or oppressed people also happen to be those whom we don’t like or trust, or may even fear, this is a HARD word to hear, much less live out. This is where Jesus had a tendency to go from preaching to meddling… a practice every pastor can tell you is fraught with danger. This is exactly why Jesus-the-Prophet was run out of his own home-town, for sharing a word that folks were really uncomfortable with.
This morning, I have some things to say that may cross the line from preaching to meddling. If it starts to land that way for you, my invitation is to not walk away. Keep listening and take this as an opportunity for soul-searching and prayerful reflection. Because truly, it was soul-searching and prayerful reflection that got me here.
Recently, I read a news article from Los Angeles that chilled me to the bone. Because as I read it, I could mentally picture this event possibly unfolding at every church I’ve ever known of. It landed for me as gripping, cautionary tale about the failure of a church to love… both the WHO of Jesus’ calling, and the HOW of Paul’s preaching. Here’s what happened…
On hot day, earlier this summer, a Black woman sat down on a church’s front lawn to rest in a shady spot. Enjoying the cool, she began to paint her nails and let them dry while she sat awhile. At first, everything seemed fine, but she began to feel uncomfortable as the unsettling sensation of being watched grew. She looked around for a watcher and noticed a White person standing at one of the church’s windows. As soon as eye contact was established, the watcher disappeared. Soon after that, a White gentleman came out of the building and came over to the woman and asked her what she was doing. She told him that she was enjoying the shade and resting. He told her that she would need to move along and leave. She replied that she wasn’t hurting anything and that she was in a public place. She saw no reason to go. He then disappeared back into the building, but soon returned with another fellow. The two of them proceeded to plant signs in the grass that read “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” and then stood, staring the woman down until she gave in and departed.
Notice I said gave in, not gave up. Because this woman did NOT give up her belief that it should have been perfectly all right for her to have been where she was, doing what she was doing. She shared the story of her experience extensively enough that eventually the L.A. Times published it. This congregation is now finding itself in the difficult position of needing to do its anti-racism work very, VERY publicly. I don’t know anything about this church’s professed beliefs, but given the response of the church’s leadership after this incident, the behavior of the three individuals involved was not consistent with their congregational values.
Let me reiterate here, that this is the kind of thing that can happen in ANY church. Maybe it’s not racism or classism that rears its ugly head in the moment of truth in our congregation. It could be another failure of hospitality where a visitor is scolded for sitting in someone’s seat or long-time, elderly member is avoided for smelling bad with no one stepping up to help offer care for an individual who is clearly unable to care for themselves any longer. Possessiveness and fear of embarrassment can be just as problematic as the issues in this news story.
The thing is, though, that it is not at all uncommon for a community to hold ideals that we may, as individuals, agree or assent to, but when push comes to shove, we just don’t always manage to live into. Sometimes old fears, unconscious prejudices or hidden, unseen values rise to the surface and assert themselves through our words and actions without our full awareness. We find ourselves, as Paul describes in another letter, doing and saying the very things we HATE and have pledged NOT to do, incapable of understanding our own failure, and filled with painful self-judgment as a result.
Moments like this can be a bitter pill to swallow. None of us want to choke something like this down. Unfortunately, it is only by confronting such things, examining them and striving to learn from them that we can grow in ways that help us to behave such that we do not betray our own values and commitments to be people who love not just in word, but in deeds as well.
One of the ways many churches in the mainstream Protestant tradition live out our love gets expressed as “inclusion.” It is one of the hallmarks of the United Methodist denomination to uphold a “Big Tent” that intentionally seeks to include as many people from as many walks of life as possible. We tend to see inclusion as a mark of our hospitality and a means by which we show and share our love. Inclusion lives for many congregations like Covenant and St. Paul’s as a means of cultivating connection and relationship. It seems like this is a way for us to flourish and find wholeness for ourselves as individuals and for all of us collectively as a community. As justice-seekers, we may also see inclusivity as the pathway for creating diversity and equity, holding that these are beneficial for all of us and a way of contributing the common good of the world around us.
As positive as this form of love sounds, there can be a flip side to this coin. In our humanness, inclusion can sometimes come across as us playing Lord or Lady Bountiful condescending to the peons that yes, we will grudgingly let you into our play house. This is MY space and you can be here as long as you play by MY rules. An us vs. them way of being can be communicated, even that is the furthest thing from our intent.
The trouble with defending our behavior based on intention is that just because we “didn’t mean to” hurt someone, doesn’t mean that real harm hasn’t actually happened. This is why we pray the Lord’s Prayer… we pray to have our trespasses forgiven… to be forgiven for the harm we have done without meaning to… without intent. This means we acknowledge all the time that we do harm unknowingly. The next step for us to grow up in faith, to move towards the perfection John Wesley calls us to is to bring a new level of responsibility to our “adulting” in love by getting conscious of the ways we’ve unintentionally done harm, not lived into our values, and let ourselves and our community down. To take responsibility in this way is not to engage in the mother of all guilt trips. Instead it is to consciously and conscientiously say, “this isn’t who and how I want to be” and then take steps to behave differently.
You don’t want to be the person saying “Get Off My Lawn!”? Practice being the person who goes out of your way to greet the person resting in the shade with, “Hi, my name is X, its pretty hot out today. Would you like to come inside where we have air conditioning? Or would it be all right if I brought you some cool water to drink?” Even better, sit down with the person and have a conversation. Ask what’s important to them. Share what’s important to you. Start a relationship.
One of the ways to go about removing the power dynamic of “this is MY tree-house and MY rules are what matter here” is to begin to cultivate the sensibility that each and every person we meet is a sibling because we are ALL God’s beloved. Truly, the biggest challenge with inclusion is that by definition, it indicates that some are excluded. Which isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Over time, we’ve allowed our fears, mistrust and dislikes to create barriers to what we will allow to be close to us and what we won’t. This begs the question then, when we talk about inclusion, just who is it that we are willing to let IN? Even more important, who is it that we are willing to sit down and BE WITH? Someone who smells bad? Someone with PTSD? Someone of another economic class? Someone of another race or ethnicity? Someone younger or older than ourselves? Someone who doesn’t know how to behave correctly (according to your perceptions) in worship?
As a next step, we need also to consider that when we say ALL are welcome, it turns out that affinity groups enjoy being together. We have a youth group for a reason, yes? Even more importantly, those who have experienced oppression and Exclusion have needs to be together for mutual support, healing, growth and empowerment. Groups for LGBTQ folx or People of Color within a church are not exclusionary. They are much like groups for Widows and Widowers or any 12-step program, or the Youth group and are intended to be a blessing for particular people in particular circumstances. If the church is a hospital for sick people, just because you don’t need Physical Therapy for your healing process, doesn’t mean that you’re being left out. If you needed PT, you’d get it.
What all of this boils down to is this: how we as church people behave… how we actually live out our love MATTERS. It’s challenging enough for people in this world to believe that a God they cannot see loves them. It’s darn near impossible to do when the church that’s right in front of them doesn’t seem to like them very much.
Ultimately my friends, the moments when we don’t get inclusion right, are the moments when we diminish other’s access to God’s love… not just with us in our community of faith… but at all. And that’s a tragedy that I hope none of us are okay with.
Beloved, my invitation to you this day, is that you not only practice seeing those around you who are not already your particular friends as Beloved Children of God, but that you see them as siblings. And see them as siblings with whom you will gladly and gleefully talk to about the good stuff in life. Trust that there is plenty to go around, and that, in fact, sharing the inside scoop about where there is good stuff to be found makes that good stuff even better for ALL of you… because now you get to experience it together.
This, is what the Kindom of God is all about… experiencing God’s love and goodness ALL TOGETHER! May this be so, not only in our hearts, but also in our actions. Amen.