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Feb. 12, 2017 "All Together Now" By the Rev. Don Wahlig

 

“All Together Now” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, February 12, 2017, Year A / 6th Sunday After Epiphany - Deuteronomy 30:15-20  •  Psalm 119:1-8  •  1 Corinthians 3:1-9  •  Matthew 5:21-24

THEME:  Stay focused on our common purpose: sharing God’s love.

 

          Several times a year I teach a New Member seminar.  One of my favorite parts of that class is highlighting the prominent role Presbyterians have played in our nation’s history.  Nowhere has that role been more influential than in the period leading up to the American Revolution.

 

          First place in the long line of prominent Colonial-era Presbyterians belongs to John Witherspoon, whose second wife is buried in our cemetery across the street.

 

          A decade before the Revolution, Witherspoon was happily and successfully pastoring a Church of Scotland congregation outside Glasgow. Then two influential American friends paid him a visit.  They were Benjamin Rush (the founder of Dickinson College) and Richard Stockton, a wealthy Princeton landowner.

 

          They convinced Witherspoon to come to America and become the second president of what was then called The College of New Jersey.   Today, we call it Princeton University.      

 

          All three would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.  Witherspoon was the only active clergyman to put his name to it.

 

          As the story goes, when word of the American insurrection reached Parliament, the Prime Minister stood up and exclaimed, with great despair, “Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian Parson!”  It was, in effect, a family scandal.

 

          Like all families, we and our British cousins have had our spats over the years, but it’s undeniable that we’ve become the closest of allies.  We are joined together by a common purpose, rooted in our common religious tradition of evangelical Protestantism.

 

          This was never more apparent than when Winston Churchill sought out President Franklin Roosevelt for help in resisting the threat of Nazi Germany.  For decades prior to WWII, relations between England and the US had been frosty, even contentious. 

 

          But Churchill was persistent.  He appealed to the common purpose America and Britain shared.  Because he did, we joined together and overcame the forces behind one of the world’s greatest humanitarian evils.

 

          What Churchill did reminds me of what Paul is trying to do in our epistle text.

 

          Paul is writing to the church he founded in Corinth some years before.  Since his last visit, the congregation has become divided and quarrelsome.  Some among them have become puffed up.  They claim secret wisdom that elevates them above their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

          They see themselves as spiritually mature.  But Paul points to their jealous squabbling as proof of the opposite.  They are, in actuality, infants in the faith.  

 

          He calls them to be united through humility.  He wants them to remember they all share a common purpose, a purpose far greater than themselves and their own egos.  

 

          Their purpose is to live in such a way that their lives proclaim the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ.  When they do, the glory belongs to God – not to them.

 

          I wonder, can we see ourselves in this text?  At first, we might not think so.  As far as I know, we don’t have anyone claiming spiritual superiority because they’ve been given secret wisdom or been baptized by a particular pastor like the Corinthians were doing.

 

          But, on second thought, maybe we do know a thing or two about this egocentric squabbling.  Whether or not we say it aloud, maybe we sometimes puff ourselves up just a little bit when we tell someone “I go to the Gathering,” or “I go to the Traditional Service”. 

 

          Or maybe we feel just a little superior when we say “I worship at the early service” or “I worship at 11:15”). 

 

          Or “I’m a Deacon” or “I’m an Elder”; or “I’m on “Earth Care” or “I’m on Mission”.

 

          These are comparatively little things.  We can bridge them fairly easily.  But there are bigger divisions that are more disruptive, even dangerous for our unity. 

 

          Some of us, for example, may feel superior to others because we identify being righteous with our work for social justice.  Others among us may feel superior because we uphold Biblical truth as the real benchmark for faithfulness. 

 

          These differences can easily become sources of pride that set us against one another, and prevent us from being unified as the body of Christ. 

 

          When our egos trump our humility, we become focused on winning, on being right, instead of serving Christ, who calls us all to work together for the common purpose of sharing God’s Kingdom.

 

          That Christ-centered unity is what Paul wants for the Corinthians.  It’s what God wants for us.  

 

          The question is how we do that. 

 

          The best answer I’ve heard is from Jim Wallis.  Jim is the president and founder of Sojourners, a social justice organization based in Washington DC.  He’s also editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine and the popular website sojo.net. 

 

          Jim is an unabashed Evangelical who is also passionate about social justice.  For a long time that made him something of an odd duck. 

 

          On the one hand, traditional evangelicals were suspicious of him.  They weren’t comfortable with his unwavering insistence on heeding Christ’s call to love our neighbor, especially those whom Matthew calls ‘the least.’ 

 

          On the other hand, progressive Christians were also reluctant to embrace him.  They weren’t comfortable with the way he constantly quoted scripture as the basis for social justice.

 

          Over the years, however, things have changed.  Those on both sides of the theological divide are increasingly gravitating toward what Jim has to say.  I count myself among them.  Whatever label you may want to put on him, Jim Wallis is my kind of Christian. 

 

          When it comes to the essential work of reconciling conservative evangelicals with progressive Christian social justice advocates, he says, “We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.”

 

          Instead of being on one side of any particular issue or the other, he suggests we seek to be on God’s side.  To explain what that means, he writes this, “It starts with focusing on the common good... we must care for more than just ourselves or our own group.  We must care for our neighbor as well, and for the health of the life we share with one another.  It echoes a very basic tenet of Christianity and other faiths - love your neighbor as yourself - still the most transformational ethic in history.”

 

          Just the other day, I witnessed a spectacular example of how focusing on Christ’s command to love others can transform our ego-driven, self-righteous separation into real Christian unity. 

 

          A high school classmate of mine is now the junior United States Senator from Delaware.  His name is Chris Coons.  Two weeks ago, Chris led the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC.   

 

          His co-leader was his good friend, Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas.  

 

          What makes this so remarkable is that the two of them sit on different sides of the political aisle.

          But for one hour every Wednesday morning, they both attend the Senate Prayer Breakfast.  The Senate Chaplain leads them and their Senate colleagues in prayer.  They share personal stories, family concerns, and faith journeys.  It’s Senators only: no press.  It’s one of the few occasions when Democrats and Republicans can actually mingle.

          Chris is a Presbyterian and John is a Baptist.  Though these two senators disagree on politics, they’ve found they share a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ.  Praying together over the common problems facing them, their colleagues, their constituents, our nation and our world, they’ve developed not only trust and friendship, but the capacity for real bipartisan dialogue without the ideological turf war that is so common.

          They’re not alone.  Other Christian senators whose politics differ, sometimes dramatically, have had similar experiences.

          So does this mean that a brand new era of bi-partisan cooperation is on the horizon in Washington?  Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far just yet. 

          This is not an instant fix to bridge the deep divisions that separate us, whether in politics or in our churches.

          The point is to persist – to persist in seeking that higher common ground of which Jim Wallis spoke.  That means taking a risk and letting mutual trust and relationships develop with those with whom we differ, and being open to however God wants to work in us and through us.  Then we simply trust that God will make the seeds of Christian unity grow and blossom into the fruit of his Kingdom.

          Whether that’s overcoming international evil and the oppression of the marginalized as Churchill and FDR did, or reaching out to give new life to the poor and homeless right here in our own backyard, we can only marvel at the power of focusing on our common purpose in Jesus Christ.  

          Friends, my question today is simple. 

          Where might this happen in our lives?  Is there a fellow Christian with whom you’ve been disagreeing, whether about politics or religion or something else that’s important to you both?  

 

          Why not start by focusing on the single most important thing we have in common – the purpose for which we were created:  to love God and serve Jesus Christ by reaching out to our neighbors, especially the least.

 

          I can’t tell you what will happen, but I do promise you this:  if we persist, God will work through us to make his Kingdom real:  for us, and for others.

 

May it be so.

 
Last Published: June 23, 2017 11:34 AM
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