[Note: This sermon was preached Nov. 13, 2016, the Sunday after the Presidential Election, at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]
There’s a 1969 British movie called “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” which sounds like it could be about the final days of autumn in Ohio. It’s not of course; it’s about the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Latin America in the 1500’s. There’s one scene in the movie where Pizarro and his men come upon a huge chasm between two mountains. The only way to get across is on a very rickety swinging bridge built by the Inca natives.
Pizarro looks over his band of men and no one will meet his eye. Even the bravest of his soldiers are afraid they will be chosen to lead the way across the bridge. Pizarro surveys the crowd again and his eyes fall on a priest who is part of the expedition, and he says, “The Church goes first.”
Whether you are happy or sad about the outcome of Tuesday’s vote, this historic campaign and election has revealed that the fracture in our national unity is much wider and deeper than most of us realized. That chasm of anger and mistrust seems to have widened even more in the days following the election, and it needs to be bridged for our democracy to survive. That healing process will require lots of people to be all in for that task. Guess what? The Church goes first!
Our text this morning was written by Paul to the church at Corinth, a deeply divided conglomeration of people who were a quarrelsome lot. In I and II Corinthians we have parts of at least 3 letters Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and a reference to an earlier one that was not preserved. A good portion of those letters, like the verses we just read, is devoted to trying to resolve conflicts among the believers and with the larger cosmopolitan community in which this church lived. Corinth, a city in Greece was located at the crossroads of almost all commerce between Rome and the provinces in the Eastern Mediterranean. People from all over the known world passed thru there and many stayed bringing with them their own culture and religion. Archeologists have found evidence of over 2 dozen temples in Corinth where many different gods were worshipped. And within the Christian fellowship there were strong feelings and theological divisions.
So Paul in this 12th chapter compares the human body to the church. He is trying to combat the jealousies and ego-driven points of view that were setting one part of the body of the church against another because each faction is more concerned with being right than with working together for the Kingdom of God.
In our own American history one of the most eloquent calls for unity among warring factions is found in Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural address just a few weeks before the end of a bloody civil war that killed 620000 soldiers and left much of the country in economic ruin. Lincoln knew this was not a time to dance on graves or boast of victory, so he closed that address by making this appeal to all Americans. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s words about binding up the nation’s wounds to create a just and lasting peace among ourselves could have been written for us today as we have just been through one of the most brutal and ugly election campaigns in American history. Political gridlock, racial and class tensions, fear of domestic and global violence divide us from one another and keep us from acting collectively to achieve the highest goals we profess to want for everyone. The challenge facing us is how to be all in for the good of our nation and the world when feelings are so raw and trust so fragile.
Paul tells the Corinthians that each part of the body needs to be content with its own role. Feet are made for walking, not trying to speak or think; you can’t hear with a kidney, and if the mouth goes on a hunger strike, the whole body is in serious trouble. To each body part Paul says, “It’s not all about you!”
Unity in the midst of diversity requires great commitment and a willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the greater good. There is no better example of that kind of sacrifice and service than the Veterans we honor this week. The success of any military unit depends on every member of any rank doing his or her job even under the most difficult circumstances. In another example from the early days of American history the signers of the Declaration of Independence demonstrate what it means to be all in for something we believe in. Listen to these final words of the Declaration:
“With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The seriousness of that pledge prompted Ben Franklin to say, “We must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.” For those men the choice to sign that document was literally a matter of life and death. They were committing treason against the British crown and the punishment for that was death. And for us the future of our democracy may depend on people of faith being willing to assume the task of binding up the nation’s wounds.
If you wonder what the source of such courage is, notice how that final sentence of the Declaration begins “With a Firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.” Those brave men in Philadelphia did not all agree on theology, they were not all Christians, but they knew that faith alone can give us the courage and strength to be all in. What are we that devoted to? Are we more all in for our favorite sports team or our business than we are for the well-being of everyone in our nation? What kinds of sacrifices are we willing to make for God so the church can be the body of Christ and help heal the divisions in our nation?
We have a granddaughter who is a freshmen in college this year, and her first quarter has reminded me that sharing a room with someone for the first time have requires the art of compromise. According to you tube, one student left a note for his roomie that said, “Sorry, I drank your Red Bull. Please tell me what you want in the blank below.” The roommate wrote back, “A new roommate.” That’s a clever response but avoidance and separation are not usually the best way to deal with conflict. To heal the pain and divisions in our country will require honest communication between opposing factions and groups. That won’t happen unless we take time to get to know and understand people who disagree with us. We all tend to socialize and hang out and get our information from people we like and are comfortable with. Unless we intentionally find ways to change that pattern the gaps between us will just keep getting wider.
Marriage may be the best of example where people promise to be all in, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. We say that in marriage two become one flesh, and that’s a great metaphor for describing the closeness and selflessness marriage represents, but the truth is that even in that most intimate covenant, we are still individuals with unique needs and wants. Someone once said that if two people become exactly alike, one of them is reduncnt. So even or especially in marriage, compromise is necessary for a just and lasting peace.
Marriage partners or business colleagues, athletic team members all contribute different talents and attributes to make a group work. The most brilliant play diagramed by a football coach will never succeed if the players are on the field arguing about who gets to run the ball. A 300 lb. lineman’s job is to block, not to dazzle the crowd with fancy footwork and long touchdown runs.
Diversity in groups enriches the experience and learning for everyone. Paul says a body can’t be all feet, or all eyes and function. A car can’t be all tires or engine or transmission; it takes the whole thing functioning as intended for it to work – and a church or any community of people is doomed to failure sooner rather than later if jealousy or grudges or personal differences make one or more parts of the body dysfunctional. President Harry Truman summed up the value of collaboration very well. He said “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
The early church described in Acts 2 sets the bar very high for Jesus followers. Those early Christians were so all in they sold all of their personal property, pooled their resources and shared what they had collectively with those in need. If that model is too socialistic for you, we also know that Paul raised funds on his missionary journeys from churches he founded in places like Corinth and Ephesus to support the church in Jerusalem which was in dire needs of funds. From day one the Christian Church has been a connectional church, knowing that none of us can meet all the spiritual and material needs of the world, but by combining resources we can all be part of ministries around the world. Northwest church can’t start a university in Africa or respond to natural disasters all over the world, but the United Methodist church as a whole can.
So, what does that all mean for us here at Northwest? To take any journey, we have to begin know where we are now. To be all in as part of a faith community means we begin by acknowledging we are not all in for the things we value most – family, church, God. To be all in means admitting when we’re wrong and asking for help when we need it.
It also means we have to pray and examine our hearts to see how we ourselves may be a part of the problems in our nation. And then ask what we are willing to do in order to be more all in. Surrendering something of ourselves for the good of the community is never easy. Worldly values teach us to be strong, invincible, and self-sufficient. But there are no self-made men or women. None of us would have survived the first few weeks of life without people who were all in for us and sacrificed sleep and personal comforts and leisure to care for us.
Paul tells us what the purpose of the church is in v. 25 – it is simply to care for each other. In that same verse Paul talks about the ideal of there being no dissension among the faithful. I preached a few weeks ago at another church in Columbus, and one of the members there commented to me that their congregation is like a family, and then she added, “And we fight like a family too.” Being all in doesn’t mean we all have to agree. A healthy church or family or democracy needs diverse points of view and experiences and a willingness to listen and learn from each other.
Like the parts of the human body, we each need to be who God has made us and do our part as best we can instead of being jealous of others. I would love to be able to sing and play like Mary/Brandon/Joe and the band, but if my mic ever stays on during a hymn you’ll know music’s not my gift. When we get to heaven God is not going to ask us why we weren’t like Paul or Mother Theresa. God isn’t going to ask me why I didn’t preach from memory like Tom does. No, God is going to ask each of us if we were all in with whatever gifts and talents God gave us.
To be the body of Christ, especially in uncertain times is to be present for each other and embrace our common humanity. Where there are divisions and fractures in the fabric of human relationships bridges of compassion and understanding need to be built, lines of communication need to be restored or established. We’re all in because healing and reconciliation is what the body of Christ does. At this moment in time more than ever, the church goes first!
Times of uncertainty often remind me of an old Peter, Paul and Mary song, “Day is Done.” One verse of that song says:
“Tell me why you’re crying, my son
I know you’re frightened, like everyone
Is it the thunder in the distance you fear?
Will it help if I stay very near?
I am here
And if you take my hand my son
All will be well when the day is done.”
No earthly parent or President can guarantee that promise. But we know one who can and his name is Emanuel, God with Us. This week reach out to friends and strangers who need a hand, and together take God’s hand.
And all will be well when the day is done.