February 2, 2020 – Sermon

Epiphany 4 February 2, 2020 Psalm 15, Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12,
1 Corinthians 1:4-17 How good and pleasant it is…
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The psalmist proclaims: How very good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. And I’m sure the psalmist knows well – how rare such blessed unity is. And how difficult it can be to preserve whatever unity we have.

It’s not just the Corinthian church in the first century or the world of electoral politics today. From the first biblical brothers and the murder of Abel by Cain… to the civil wars recorded in the biblical books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles… Picking up teams and having pitched battles has been the world’s default position from the get-go.

Today’s Super Bowl and Impeachment Trial are actually rather mild events compared with gladiators fighting lions in the Colosseum and Aztec soccer games with the losing teams becoming human sacrifices… (At least our players get to wear helmets and shoulder pads…) And so far even our most passionately partisan political operatives haven’t seriously proposed the guillotine for their opponents…

Still, celebrating human progress is probably premature. As we recall –
In our gospel today we see Jesus’s apostles apparently listening as he teaches them (and us) to live into his poverty of spirit, his meekness, his purity of heart, his mercifulness, his peace-making…
Yet so soon we see disciples then arguing about which of them is the greatest. And over in John’s gospel, Jesus prays for all his followers to be united in perfect unity (John 17). But that prayer still seems to be taking it’s time being answered. (At least as Jesus asks.)
How very good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity. And how rare this unity still is. Yet – Jesus has prayed for us… So – There is deep yearning in the depths of our souls for unity…
Yet because of human sin and human frailty… persistent reminding is required…

Driving home from a District Meeting in Barrington Rhode Island yesterday I noticed a sign hanging from a bridge saying: America – United We Stand – Divided We Fall. My first thought was “Too late for that!” Then I saw the same sign again on the next bridge. Hmm. Let’s pray about it… Then the sign appeared again on the next bridge… So I kept praying… And now, with the third sign I started hearing its message as a prayer. A prayer for unity a bit like the prayer Jesus prayed for the church. A prayer Jesus still prays… for all God’s people…
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It’s easy to be cynical about human nature and human behavior. And the more I feel cynical the more I need to keep my eyes, ears and heart open for signs of hope. Deeper hope… And the more I pray, the more the Holy Spirit reminds me… of things that I’ve said and done that have contributed to division and disunity. The more the Spirit reminds me also of the better sides of people I disagree with…

“United we stand, divided we fall” is a phrase that dates back to just before the American revolution. The phrase probably originates from Jesus saying (in Mark’s gospel) “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” A true saying that applies in love and war, faith and politics… All of life…

And as people of the Methodist tribe who since 1968 have been called “United Methodists” division has always been there along with unity. The late Albert Outler, one of Methodism’s better theologians and historians, writes of a conversation he once had with a Free Methodist Bishop in which he asked “How free are Free Methodists?” And the Bishop replied immediately “At least as free as United Methodists are united.”
Point well taken. We have a history of division. The Methodist movement split from the Anglican church, more by accident than by design in the late 1700’s. Then in the early 1800s African American Methodists separated to form what became the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in Philadelphia. Soon after in New York others left to form the AME Zion Church; in each case because people of color were told to sit apart in segregated areas of the sanctuary…
In the 1840s the founders of what became known as the Wesleyan Church left Methodism over what they considered our luke-warm stance on abolition of slavery. About the same time the Methodist Episcopal Church South split from the Church in the North over slavery; with the South insisting slavery was permitted in the bible (ignoring Israel’s time in slavery and Wesley’s passionate denunciations of slavery.) After the Civil War, Free Methodists left to become a new denomination with emphasis on holiness, including opposition to slavery. In the early 1900s leaders of what became the Nazarene church split from Methodism over Methodism’s perceived weak stance on social justice…
At the time they left, Wesleyans, Free Methodists and Nazarenes were the progressives of their day. Now these denominations are generally more conservative. The issues and reasons for divisions have changed. But the divisions still persist… And Jesus still prays….
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So here we are today, revisiting the First Church of Jesus Christ of Corinth Greece, founded by Paul a few years earlier. Somewhere in the mid-50’s A.D., here’s Paul begging, pleading, threatening, cajoling, arguing, praying, pulling out all the stops… Trying to persuade the Corinthian Church to agree in Christ. And be united…

The church is divided over preferences as to leadership, style of worship, sexual ethics, social-economic class roles, importance of various spiritual gifts and ministries and wisdom and knowledge, and who’s got it, who doesn’t…
Some of the Corinthian church call themselves followers of Paul – others followers of Apollos (a gifted preacher according to the book of Acts) – others call themselves followers of Cephas (another name for the apostle Peter) – still others say they are followers of Christ. This last obviously the right answer – but – as we read on we notice even those giving right answers – verbally – are not always living out their good answers… in ways that contribute to church unity…
Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. The apostle tells us later different gifts and callings are all part of the big picture within the unity of faith and grace in the love of God and neighbor…
But as both the prophet Micah and Jesus tell us today – even our best answers are only as good as our best behaviors…
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So what can we learn about healing divisions and recovery of unity by reading“somebody else’s mail” from two thousand years ago?
Some day people may have to ask “what’s a letter?” When I was younger letters were more common, and we had the song – Mr Postman, look and see – is there a letter in your bag for me?… Now days in our household it’s an event to receive a hand-written letter. There’s something special about somebody caring enough to write…that assures our careful reading…

In the apostle Paul’s days letters were even more special. Not many could read and write. Any letter addressed to a church would be read aloud carefully in church in it’s entirety… all the letter at once. Many times. The letter we call First Corinthians takes about an hour to read. Not a long time. And back in a time and place when people lacked all the technologically-driven distractions our culture is so very full of and strung out on… More people listened well.. and remembered well…And even then, persistent repetition in reading and hearing was required..

I remember learning back in seminary – to notice – nearly all Paul’s letters begin with giving thanks to God for those he’s writing to. But it’s only recently with time and repeated reading of the New Testament letters that I’ve begun to understand how radical this giving of thanks is…

Saying “thank you” publically to God for people we disagree with has surely never been popular or something we do naturally. But with long practice many in the church have learned to do this… And the importance of the words of grace Paul opens with keeps getting clearer for me… The more I read on through the letter, which, as bible wonk Michael Gorman says, ‘reads like an annotated laundry list of the problem behaviors of the Corinthian church’…

Yet here’s Paul thanking God for the Corinthians…Thanking God for all this troubled church, that like the Methodist church everywhere… has all sorts of problems and differences… Yet by keeping the goal of unity in Christ in view the apostle enlists us in the letter’s purpose – of focusing our lives – in the cross of Jesus Christ. Transforming our vision and understanding…

The cross, the Empire’s most brutal form of execution. The opposite of victory in the sight of the world. Yet the cross is now the signature symbol of Christian faith. The sure sign of the victory of God over death. As only through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all our seeing, hearing, knowing and perceiving… All our world-view… transformed… As we begin to see with the eyes of Christ…. The beginning of life together in the unity of the love of God…

The gift of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.