Sermon, July 26, 2015
Dialog not Debate
Phil Campbell, Northern Light United Church, Juneau, Alaska
Ephesians 4: 1-6, 11-16
1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
1 Corinthians 12: 12-26
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
excerpt from “Catholic Spirit” Sermon 39, John Wesley
Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (John 14: 10,11). All men approve of this, but do all men practice it? Daily experience shows the contrary. Where are even the Christians who love one another as he hath given us the commandment? How many hindrances lie in the way? The two grand general hindrances are first, that they cannot all think alike and in consequence of this, secondly, they cannot all walk alike, but in smaller points their practice must differ in proportion of difference of their sentiments. But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.
Those of you who were in worship last week might recall that the theme of my message was unity. We looked at a passage from Ephesians calling for the unity of the church, and we viewed it through the lens of the Belhar Confession. Belhar emerged from the Reformed Church in South Africa during apartheid. Belhar declares that our unity cannot be predicated on injustice. We can’t just go along to get along; we can’t proclaim a watered down message that does not account for Jesus’ commitment to the poor and the oppressed. That cannot be the price of our unity. During our Joys and Concerns time, Will Bishop referenced the sermon and he gave thanks for learning about the Belhar Confession and then prayed for the capacity to wrestle with the contradiction: How can be united when we hold different in our opinions? How can we both stand up for what we believe and accept everyone, especially those with whom we disagree? I believe Will’s question is an important one and that as a Christian community we have an obligation to address it. The excerpt from Wesley’s sermon on Catholic Spirit gives us a start. Though we may not all think alike, can we not all love alike?
Though we may not all think alike, can we not all love alike? Can we do that? If it is about what you prefer on the dinner menu, or whether you choose salmon or halibut from the buffet table, we might be able to live with those differences. They don’t have to divide us. But what if our differences are about convictions rather than opinions? How can we achieve the unity in the body that the letter in Ephesians calls us to? How might we honor each member?
Early in my ministry when I was a pastor in Boulder I was involved with the Nuclear Freeze Movement. The Freeze offered what I see as a modest proposal. It was a call for the United States and the Soviet Union to stop producing nuclear weapons. It did not require dismantling the ones we had; just a halt in production. Even though by my standards modest, it was a controversial notion amid Cold War suspicion. There were those who supported it and those who opposed it. It wasn’t only disagreement about the facts. Emotions ran high. I remember a conversation with someone in which I stated that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union have the capacity to blow up the world many times over. We don’t, I argued, need that kind of duplication. My conversation partner agreed, as long as the U.S. could blow up the world one more time than the Soviet Union could! It wasn’t as easy to resolve differences about the Freeze as it might be to live with differing culinary tastes.
Both our church bodies, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church believe that God’s reign has everything to do with all aspects of life. We can’t compartmentalize God and say God is only relevant when we show up in worship on Sunday morning. No, if we worship God, if we are followers of Jesus – the one who shows us who God is – then it lays a claim on all of life. The Church addresses the issues of the day, not just our private lives. Thus, in those years of the Nuclear Freeze movement, the Church asked what it meant to follow Jesus amid the nuclear arms race.
One expression of this inquiry was a weekend workshop put on by the Denver North District of the United Methodist Church regarding how people of faith might respond to the Freeze. I was invited to be one of the speakers on a “Pro-freeze”/“Anti-freeze” panel. In addition to two of us on opposite sides of the issue, the panel was to include a pastor who would reflect on how the church can hold competing views together in one body.
I showed up that Saturday morning with all my information about why the Freeze was a good idea. I could cite then statistics that I can’t now about how many warheads each country had. I spoke of their capabilities, how a launch might occur, what it meant to be on hair-trigger alert, and how unsafe all this made the world. I was prepared to make a good case.
But a wrinkle was added to the story when I arrived for the beginning of the workshop. The organizer of the event met me at the door and informed me that she received a call from the pastor who was to be a part of the panel – the one who was supposed to identify the church can live with these differences within the body. “The pastor is sick and will not be able to attend,” she said. She continued, “You’re a pastor, right?” “Yes.” “Good. In addition to being a pro-Freeze speaker, we would like you to assume the pastor’s role to talk to us about how we can live together in the church amid our disagreements.”
I think I was about 30 when this happened. I grew up quickly that day. I accepted my assignment, and that experience has become a shaping image for my ministry. That morning, I did not qualify my support for the Nuclear Freeze. But I also affirmed diversity within the body, and I spoke of the value of listening to and learning from one another. A large part of what helped me do that was not only my theological commitment to so doing. It was listening to one of the anti-Freeze speakers, in particular, with new ears. His presentation was memorable. He was the head of the union’s social concerns committee at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant. Rocky Flats was close to the Denver North District and it is where all the plutonium triggers for all the nuclear bombs were produced. He was convinced that nuclear deterrence made the world safer. My first thought was to argue with his premise. Instead, I listened to him share why he wanted to make the world safer. He wanted to so because he loved his neighbors and it was unconscionable to imagine them perishing in a nuclear attack. He believed that the path to peace was through deterrence. Although he and I disagreed about the Freeze, it was obvious to me that he really did love his neighbors. He spoke of organizing food drives among Rocky Flats employees for the poor in their community. He talked about his involvement in his church. As he spoke and I listened, I discovered I had common ground with this gentleman. And not only that, I found out that in many ways I had more in common with him than I did with my fellow pro-Freeze speaker. He was a businessman from Colorado Springs who had little interest serving the community. The best way to summarize his opposition to nuclear weapons is that it would be bad for his business. If the world was blown up there wouldn’t be people to come into his store and buy the things that he wanted to sell them. He didn’t particularly care about them except as consumers of the things on his shelves. I didn’t disagree, of course, that nuclear war would be bad for business, but I realized that day that I related more to the fellow from Rocky Flats.
Do you know Bill Nye, the Science Guy? I read a quote from him recently. He said, “Everyone you ever will meet knows something you don’t.” Everyone you ever will meet knows something you don’t. I believe that, and thus I believe that it is possible not just to tolerate each other within the body, not just to accept that we are different, but actually learn something from each other if we are open to the encounter.
University of Chicago Theology Professor David Tracy describes this process of encountering each other in his book, Plurality and Ambiguity. (You have to think up titles like that if you’re going to have a job at the University of Chicago.) He calls the process, not surprisingly, “conversation,” but he deepens the meaning of the word: “…it is not confrontation. It is not debate. It is not an exam. It is questioning itself. It is a willingness to follow the question wherever it may go. It is dialogue.” Such conversation does not demand agreement, and the point is not to eliminate differences, but to acknowledge, to understand, and to appreciate them, so that, we can, in Tracy’s phrase, “attend to the other as other, the different as different…[in order to] understand the different as possible.”
At first I was taken aback by Tracy’s notion. What does it mean to “attend to the other as other?” What I want to affirm is that we are not “other,” that we’re together! But as I sought to be in conversation with Tracy through his writing, what I came to understand is that in the body we have to embrace otherness. We are different. The problem is not otherness. It is inequity.
When it comes to racial difference, some yearn for a colorblind approach that proclaims everyone is the same. But that disrespects the body; we are different. Are we willing to let the other remain “other,” and not say “you have to be like me”? Or will I feel better about myself if I can believe you are like me? If I don’t have to acknowledge the other’s difference? It does not have to be this way. I can learn from, understand, appreciate, and receive the gifts from the other that are not the same as mine, appreciate perspectives that are not the same as mine.
Is it possible to do this in church? The first question is, do we desire to do so? Some of us grew up in churches that are more “knee caucuses” or “elbow conventions” than they are the body of Christ. Same may desire churches like that. It was Aristotle, I believe, that as a good sociologist, said, “Birds of a feather flock together.” This may be good sociology, but it is not the theology of the body of Christ. Whether or not associating with those like us is a natural human tendency, Christians are called to be together in our otherness – together in a way that deeply appreciates each other’s gifts but does not require sameness.
Is it possible? I made a connection with the man who worked for Rocky Flats in a way that I had thought possible. If I had not been asked to reflect on how we can live together across difference in the church, I might have missed the connection.
As we appreciate and learn from each “other as other” across our differences, we do not all start at the same point. Many of us how have been socialized in the dominant culture, and particularly those such as me who are white, heterosexual males, may have a harder time completly appreciating the perspective of another. The reason I believe that this is the case is because those of us who look like me have produced most of the public images of what it looks like to be human. Since public depictions most often are created by someone more like me, I unconsciously identify with them and see them as the normative way to be human. Native people in Alaska and people of color throughout the country grow up knowing that most of the public images of life are different from the way they experience life. They automatically have what W.E.B. DuBois called “double consciousness.” There is a painful dimension of double consciousness, as people constantly have to translate. They are expected to justify how they are different. But double consciousness also brings the gift of perspective. Often those with raised with it can more quickly appreciate and understand otherness.
Within the body of Christ, I believe we are called to hone our capacity for double consciousness in a positive sense. To do so will lead to greater understanding of what it means to walk in another’s footsteps. Some may be more adept at this than others, but it is a task for all of us to continue to practice. Within the body, no one that gets a pass on this even though we begin at different places. I invite each of us to consider what we need to do to genuinely hear and experience the other.
This was a lesson Jesus learned when he encountered a Canaanite woman. She asked him to heal her daughter, but he told her that he had come for the children of Israel and that it was not right to give to dogs the food that was meant for children. (If this depiction of Jesus doesn’t disturb you, you probably would not have shown up at church anyway, but dealing with it fully is another sermon.) The woman replied, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall off the master’s table.” In this encounter, Jesus had a conversation according to Tracy’s definition. Through it he was converted to new understanding. Scripture tells us he marveled at the woman’s faith, and he did for her what she asked. (Matthew 15: 21-28)
Some are threatened by this. Some commentaries try to explain away the offense. They claim Jesus knew all along what he would do, but he teased the woman a bit. Of course he already believed she deserved the food and that her daughter deserved healing. I don’t buy this. Calling a woman a dog is not teasing. And if you think about the word for female canines, the offense is even more egregious. I don’t think we can explain this away, and I don’t believe we should try. Because what Jesus reveals is something we all need to learn. When he is called on his offensive behavior, he is amazingly non-defensive. He exhibits holy non-defensiveness. Through conversation with the woman as other his eyes and his ears were open to new learning. He learned from her and marveled at her faith. He learned something from someone that he had been taught to believe had nothing to teach him.
Learning from each other as other is a part of life in the body of Christ. We can be open with each other. We can be unafraid to share who we are, and to offer our perspective. And at the same time, we can be desirous to discover the perspective of others. We are not the same and we should not be. Together, our understandings can be enlarged. Our paths will be illumined for all, and we can be equipped to grow in wisdom, love, compassion, and joy. May it be so. Amen.