This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
About a year ago I was sitting in the upstairs area of Wegman’s, sipping on a cup of coffee, while my computer, Bible, and United Methodist Hymnal were out on the table in front of me. I was there in the hopes of stringing together a worship service and a sermon, but I was distracted. My distraction stemmed from the, at the time, recent Special General Conference in which the UMC doubled down on its language regarding the so-called incompatibility of homosexual Christians.
Every time I lifted my hands to get something down in writing, I was at a loss of what to say.
So I sat there and I sipped on my coffee and I rested in my distractions. Until a man walked over from the other side of the space and asked if he could sit with me. I noted that there were plenty of other empty seats available, but motioned for him to sit down. He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Are you a pastor in the UMC?”
“Did the hymnal give it away?”
“That, and the glum disposition. I read about the big church meeting in the newspaper the other day. You know, I used to be a United Methodist once upon a time.”
“Oh really. But you’re not anymore?”
“Nope. I can remember when the church really was together on everything, as if we were all on the same page. But then it got so divisive that I just decided to call it quits.”
“That’s too bad. Well, what kind of a church do you go to now?”
“Oh. Um, I haven’t been to a church in years to be honest… Anyway, I’m not really sure why I came over but, good luck with the church. I think you’re gonna need it.”
I’ve had a lot of interactions like that one over the last year, some with total strangers and some with people I’ve known my whole life. People who have approached me because of the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality, their struggling to come to any sort of conclusion about it, and their admission that church really isn’t for them anyway.
I’ve found each and every one of those conversations to be remarkably enlightening. For one thing, they demonstrated that the church does remain in the cultural consciousness for those outside the church, though they tend to only think about it one-dimensionally. Secondly, people are hungry for conversations about things they do not understand, even if they can’t articulate it. And thirdly, a whole lot of people inside and outside the church believe the church can only be the church if the people in the church are unified.
Spoiler warning: The church has never been unified.
If it ever felt unified, whether it was last year or 1,000 years ago, it was because particular voices were being stifled or kicked out altogether. We, in the church, have often confused unity with uniformity, and uniformity is only achieved through suppression.
The church is a strange and wondrous thing. I have noted on many occasions that the church is the last surviving place where people willfully gather with people who are different from themselves – to be clear, not every church is like this, but there are some where the people in the pews on Sunday share one thing, and only one thing, in common: Jesus.
The church is at its best when we are all busy changing each other and being changed by one another. The church is not some static institution that was the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is a living and transforming thing that is guided by the voice of the Lord that continues to speak even into the wilderness of our sin.
Or, to put it another way, the church gathers again and again to remember that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly. And, though it pains us to admit, we (all of us) are the ungodly for whom Christ died.
If there is any unity in the church, let it be that.
We tried something different in church yesterday… Instead of the typical ~15 sermon, I broke the congregation up into groups and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. Below I have included the directions for the group leaders in addition to the questions used for discussion. After the groups had spent a significant amount of time together, I invited them back into the sanctuary for a brief homily to connect the scripture with our activity.
We Are (Not) Together – Group Leader Instructions
Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your leadership during the activity I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with the group – Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Over the last few weeks I have been particularly struck by our lack of knowledge in regard to the people in the pews on Sunday, and when the text for worship came up with a focus on “working together” I had the idea that we might try to work together on working together.
Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where each person sits in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over the quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than get to all of the questions without really soaking up the answers.
- Reread the following portion from our text for the day:
- 1 Corinthians 3.9
- “For we are God’s servants, working together: you are God’s field, God’s building.”
- Ask everyone to share their names.
- Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes, we will be speaking casually with one another about our respective interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “When was the last time you felt God’s presence?” Or “What sins are you currently struggling with?” Instead, our time we be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and we can move one to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in this church and in our community.”
- Below are a list of questions that you may use for the group. The idea is to read one of the questions aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random, or any other way you’d like. I have prepared more questions than you will be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know and judge the situation such that you can choose the right questions to get conversation flowing. A primary emphasis should be placed on giving every person ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone begins to monopolize the time, or become too long-winded, please ask them to conclude so that the group can move on to the next person.
- What was the last good movie you watched and what made it good?
- What is your “go-to” restaurant in Woodbridge and what do you usually order?
- What is one of your most memorable birthday presents and how did you feel when you opened it?
- If you could have one superpower what would it be and why?
- If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
- When was the last time you felt truly joyful and what were the circumstances behind it?
- When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
- What is your favorite thing to do in the winter and why?
- If they made a movie about your life, which actor would you want to play you and why?
- If you could only eat one type of food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
- Who is your hero and why?
- What is one thing that you’re extremely proud of from your life and why?
- If you had a time machine, to what time would you travel and why?
- If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
- If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you travel and why?
- What do you think is the greatest invention from your own lifetime and why?
- Wrapping Up
- Depending on the service, we need everyone back in the sanctuary by 9:15am or 10:45am. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary.
- Prays: “Lord, you know each of us and have called us by name. In the midst of our community together, we give you thanks for each person in the group and for everything they have shared today. We praise you for the many ways in which you have revealed yourself to us through one another. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of our community. Give us the strength to live in harmony and work together for your kingdom. Amen.”
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
What are churches for? One on hand, churches are physical spaces for God’s people to get together. And that makes sense – we are a people who recognize what comes from communing with community. The church is also a symbol. It stands as a beacon of a different way of being in which we know and believe we cannot make it through this thing called life by ourselves. And still yet, the church is practical – we need somewhere we can gather and sing and pray and listen and eat and baptize. We need a place for study and for contemplation.
But mostly, church is a place for us to come to grips with the strange new world of the Bible and recognize how that strange new world has become our world.
A few years back I got a knock on the door of my office and a man asked if he could speak with me. He introduced himself and told me that he was married in the church forty years ago and that his wife had died the day before. He said that he woke up that morning and realized he had no one to tell about his loss – no family, no friends, no church community. So he got into the car and drove to the place where their marriage began and told a stranger about how he was feeling.
The church is a lot of things, more things that we often realize, but if it is anything it is a place where loneliness is combatted with every fiber of our beings. Part of what we read in scripture is the witness that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian because Christ has gathered all of us together.
We are God’s servants working together. But how can we work together if we’re not together?
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The church is on the brink of schism.
On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.
One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”
Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”
And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”
Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.
By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?
Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.
One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.
The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.
We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.
It doesn’t make any sense.
I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?
Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.
The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.
The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!
I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?
We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea.
Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.
Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone.
There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.
But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.
It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!
It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.
It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.
Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them?
There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!
But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.
Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.
But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing.
2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.
The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days.
The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again.
Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.
We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.
Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.
The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today.
The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.
For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.
Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.
We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic.
Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.
But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.
Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.
He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.
This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.
We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.
That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.
We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.
It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, but upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
It was still cool in the early morning when the man prepared to mow his lawn. He looked forward to being able to drive back and forth over the grass before the sun made it too hot, and it was an opportunity for him to escape from all the busyness of the world. The hum of the machine below his legs was barely audible over his ear protection and he continued to mow until the lawn was immaculate.
As he maneuvered the mower toward the garage, he hopped off to inspect the machine when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled to the ground. The two men rolled down the hill grappling each other until they came to a stop, and the fighting really began.
Hours later the mowing man was in the hospitable with six broken ribs wondering what had led him to all of this.
That man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, a senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the fight broke out. Was the assailant an opponent of Paul’s political ideologies? Was he so moved by debates on Capitol Hill that he felt violence was the only solution? Was Paul involved with some nefarious characters and now we were seeing behind the curtain?
Not since 1856 had a sitting senator been so beaten and sent to a doctor. It was a frightening moment for law-makers all across the country as they began wondering if it could happen to them too.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out. The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
I’m not making this up people! While a great sum of people assumed that Paul’s political persuasion was to blame for the attack, while the media continued to stir the pop as much as possible, it was all about a neighborhood squabble.
Though this one left a man in the hospital with 6 broken ribs.
Remember that you were once without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace! In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
Have you ever been mad at a neighbor? Maybe they kept playing their music too loud into the early morning hours, or perhaps they kept parking their car in front of your driveway, or maybe they kept blowing their lawn clippings on to your property…
Robert Frost once famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors. And one could make the argument that strong walls make for better peace. There’s a reason the Vatican is surrounded by walls, and the White House, and even the Temple in Jerusalem.
Every child that has had to share a room knows the value of a wall (though in this case a figurative one).
There’s a reason we have to go through security before we got on an airplane.
But good walls also make for bad neighbors.
During the initial hearing after the lawn mower battle, it came to light that Rand Paul and his neighbor had not exchanged a word with one another for over ten years. Tens years of frustration about lawn clippings boiled over to the point that violence came forth. That’s a pretty tremendous wall to share with a neighbor, a wall of hostility that’s stronger than any bit of chain, any concentration of concrete, or any fabricated fence.
The higher we build the walls around us, both the real and the imagined, the higher the hostility tends to be. Every year more and more gated communities are completed. Year after year new boundary lines are drawn for schools, for taxable business, and a whole slew of other items. Year after year we tend to spend more time with people who look like us and think like us and talk like us than ever before.
And yet Paul is bold, some might say foolish, to proclaim that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, that Christ has eradicated the hostility between us.
One need not drive around for very long, or turn on the television, or simply swipe on a phone, to know that hostility is still very real, and that new walls are being constructed each and every day.
However, in the blood and cross of Christ, Jesus’ peace has been made possible for us.
And this is where the struggle between building walls and erasing hostility really comes into focus. It is far too easy to read a passage like this from Ephesians and then make some sort of declaration about current realities like the proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico, or furthering divides within our local community. And for as much as that might be true, those are walls and hostilities and visions of peace defined by our terms, and not necessarily by Jesus.
When we think of peace, we might imagine a time and place where everyone will just get along, or at least where people will just start being nice with one another.
But Jesus, the Lord of lords, he doesn’t have a lot to say about being nice. Sure, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick… those are all nice things. Doing all of that might make the world a little more peaceful.
But Jesus’ peace, a divine peace, also looks like turning the tables over in the temple, it looks like calling to task the political and religious elite for making such a mockery of the kingdom, it looks like abandoning the people closest to you if it means making God’s new reality manifest on earth.
And sometimes Jesus’ peace doesn’t jive with our version of peace.
One of the greatest challenges of being a Christian today is that many of us simply cannot resonate with the deep and profound truth that we were once far off and have now been brought near by the blood of Jesus. If we’ve grown up in the church, or can’t remember a time when the church was not pivotal in our life, we make the assumption that we have always been near. But all of us here are gentiles, we were far from the Lord and were only brought close because of Jesus.
And when we recognize our far-off-ness, when we recognize the immense chasm that has been joined in the blood of Jesus between us and God, it makes the peace of Jesus a whole lot more interesting.
Jesus’ peace is different than our peace, and is only possible because of his peace. We are no longer stranger and aliens to one another, but instead we are citizens of the household of God. This is the best news my friends! Whatever divisions and hostilities we might imagine between us, they have been wiped away! The cross stands as the great unifier between all of God’s people, including us.
Jesus’ peace is greater than any earthly vision we could possibly imagine. It is more powerful than any political policy, it is mightier than any magistrate’s order, it is more life giving than any piece of legislation.
Jesus’ peace is revolutionary.
And Jesus’s peace is nothing short of Jesus himself. In the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord we discover not just a way to live differently, but also the way that makes a way where there was no way. Jesus destroyed, and continues to destroy, the walls and the hostility between us, because we have been made one in the blood.
Now, of course, there is the temptation to treat the church like the unique place of peace, a one-hour a week reprieve from the madness of the world. Church, what we are doing here right now, is not the place where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people whom we might otherwise ignore during the week. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new peace, one in which a different power from the cross redefines the ways of the world.
Does this mean that we need to leave from this building and start tearing down our backyard fences? Should we go to our country’s southern border and protest the construction of a giant wall? Is this text compelling us to destroy every boundary that has ever existed?
Destroying walls does not in itself create peace. We still live in a very broken world in which our sinful desires compel us to make choices we know we should not make. Peace, Jesus’ peace, only comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls, and that’s not something within our own power.
Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, rather than trying to become our own Gods and destroying new walls, Paul pushes us to let ourselves be built upon the cornerstone of Christ into a temple where God dwells.
And friends, this is no easy task. To do so requires humility all but lost in the world today. It requires a willingness to say that I cannot do this on my own, that I have failed to love my fellow brothers and sisters, that I have ignored the power of Jesus blood.
To be built upon the cornerstone of Christ, rather than building our own walls, is to fundamentally commit ourselves to Jesus instead of trying to commit Jesus’ to whatever we want.
It is nothing short of letting our lives embody the words we pray each and every week, “let thy will be done.”
When each of you entered the sanctuary this morning you were handed a Lego piece. I asked you to hold it and consider your piece in the kingdom. I did this because each of us has a piece to play in peace.
But it’s not our responsibility alone.
As Paul so rightly puts it, Jesus came and proclaimed peace to us! We were far off and through Jesus we have been united with one another in one Spirit to the Father.
We are no longer strangers and aliens; all has been made new! We are citizens with fellow saints and members of the household of God. We have been built about the foundation of those who came before, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.
In Jesus the entire structure of reality is joined together and it continues to grow in the holy temple in the Lord. Our oneness, the destruction of our hostility, is the beginning of the dwelling place for God.
And so we hold our piece that is part of Jesus’ peace. But we are not alone. In just a moment, each of us will be invited forward to connect our piece to Jesus’ peace. We will be built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus the Christ, the one who is our peace. We will see our connected and stuck we each other we really are. And we will remember that Christ has already destroyed the walls between us and erased the hostility. Amen.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is very good and pleasant when kindred live together in unity, but it rarely happens. Instead, in-laws fight over table decorations for wedding receptions, children argue over who received the most Christmas presents, and spouses argue about the strangest things until they lose their voices. Even beyond the nuclear family, kindred (in the larger sense) are divided over a great number of topics including politics, economics, and ethics.
I am convinced that for as much good as social networking and the 24-hours news cycle have brought into the world there is also just as much evil. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, VA people on every spot of the spectrum have come out to voice their particular opinion as if shouting into the void without a care as to who might hear it. I have friends, good friends, who posted on their Facebook pages some truly hateful language regarding the protestors and anti-protestors. One person said that the young woman who was murdered by the driver who drove into the crowd of people would still be alive if she wasn’t a fat-good-for-nothing trying to interrupt a “peaceful protest.” Another person wrote about how we should jail and/or physically punish all white republicans because they’re all “racists on the inside.” And still yet another person wrote about the need to reassert the values of “white America” over and against all other types of Americas.
And all of this was posted publicly for the world to see.
The psalmist declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Unity is a rare thing in the world today, let alone in our individual communities. Rather than seeking unity we almost always just spend our time with those who already have our opinion and instead of seeking to find common ground we stake our claim and dig deeper into our own ground.
As Christians we believe that the church is the better place that God has made in the world. For us, the church is the place where even though we do not think alike we can love alike. We sit down in pews with people who are of different opinions, we gather with them at the altar, and we are sent forth with them to be Christ’s hands and feet for the world. If we cannot have unity in the church, unity in a common purpose to love, then the world will continue to be a place of walls and divisions and disunity.
This week, as we continue to take steps in faith and seek God’s kingdom here on earth, let us join our voices together in a common prayer:
“Almighty God, help us to remember that before Jesus marched to the cross he prayed for his disciples that they might be one. In the same fellowship that is between you and your Son and your Spirit, in the same hope of the prayer that Jesus offered in the garden, we pray for unity in your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you. Help us so to love you and one another that your kingdom might reign here on earth now and forever. Amen.”
Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.
Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.
In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.
During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.
Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”
In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.
For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.
In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.
I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.
Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.” Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.
The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.
Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong. For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”
In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.
Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”
Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.
Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.
Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.” Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.
For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.
Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.
As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”
Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.
And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.
 Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.
 Ibid., 314.
 Ibid., 314.
 Ibid., 316.
 Ibid., 317.
 Ibid., 323.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.
I love meeting people in our community and introducing myself as a pastor for the United Methodist Church. I love doing this because I never know what people will say in return.
“Oh, you must be that pastor who encouraged his church to start wearing hardhats to worship because God has a knack for tearing down walls…”
“No, you’re thinking of Clayton Payne at Cherryvale UMC.”
“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves shouting things like ‘Mercy!’ and ‘Praise the Lord!’ in the pulpit”
“No, you’re thinking of Bryson Smith at St. Paul’s UMC”
“Oh, you must be the pastor who is forever mentioning apple butter and its many uses and applications.”
“No, you’re thinking of Sarah Locke at Christ UMC.”
“Oh, you must be the pastor who is absolutely obsessed with the Washington Redskins and even had the office painted burgundy and gold.”
“No, you’re thinking of Bob Sharp from Marquis Memorial UMC. Though I wish my office looked like his.”
“Oh, you must be the pastor who loves using objects in sermons, like handing out mirrors for people to remember the need to shine Jesus’ light.”
“No, you’re thinking of Janet Knott at Jollivue UMC.”
“Oh, well you don’t look Korean…”
“No, you’re thinking of Won Un at Central UMC.”
“Oh, you must be the pastor everyone raves about with a particular gift for preaching, handsome features, and can get congregations to shout ‘Amen!’ with feeling.”
(Sigh) “No, you’re thinking of John Benson at Augusta Street UMC.”
“Oh, well then who are you?”
All of us pastors, and all of our churches are known for a variety of things. We’re known for our community engagement: Fish Fries, Apple Days, and Christmas Tree Sales. We’re known for the ways that our pastors like to preach and pray. We are known for a variety of things. We are known for how different we are from one another.
But the one thing I wish all people in Staunton knew about the United Methodist Church is that we love and worship the living God.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
The psalmist is right. We all know, on some level, the beauty of a community in unity. When we are working in one accord, when we harmonize with one another, it is very good and pleasant. But then we grimace at the way the psalmist talks about the beauty of unity. Can you imagine what would happen if I pulled John Benson up to the front of the sanctuary and poured extra virgin olive oil all over his head? And what is it about heavy dew that it supposed to elevate the blessing of unity?
Well, in the world of the psalmist, oil and dew were signs of God’s blessing. Like manna in the wilderness and the anointing of the prophets, these images speak to something greater at work than mere mortals. Yet, we are so removed from the time of the psalmist that these images no longer carry the weight they once did. Perhaps we need a new way of imagining the beauty of unity in community.
About a year ago, we started putting plans together for a community wide Trunk-or-Treat. Many of our churches had participated in some sort of Halloween celebration over the last few years, but we began imagining how much of an impact we could have if we worked together.
By the time October came around, all of the pieces were set and we were ready to host the Trunk-or-Treat at Gypsy Hill Park. On the day of the event I arrived super-early with hopes of setting the area up and organizing volunteers. We really had no idea how many people would show up but we were prepared for whatever would happen.
We handed out extra candy to all of the trunks, we set up safe areas for children to wander around, and we passed out orange vests to volunteers. The whole afternoon honestly felt like a whirlwind as we were trying to get everything together.
At the height of our preparations I noticed a small family off to the side of the parking lot watching us run around. They must’ve been standing there for ten minutes when I finally walked over to introduce myself.
“What are you all doing?” the mother asked while keeping her three young boys close.
I said, “We’re calling it a Trunk-or-Treat, it’s a safe way to celebrate Halloween. We’ll be finished setting up in about an hour and we’d love it if you’d come through.” And with that she smiled shyly smiled and left the park.
Hours later, after 3,500 people came through the Trunk-or-Treat I was exhausted. Some of the last families were making their way through the few trunks that still had candy when I noticed the small family from earlier standing by the edge of the lot. The boys were not wearing costumes, but each of them held a bag full of candy with huge grins across their faces. I started walking over to find out if they had enjoyed themselves, but as I got closer I realized that even though the children were smiling, the mother was crying.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
With a wipe of her sleeve she tried to cover her tears and then said, “My boys have never had a Halloween before. All these people gave them candy and talked to us and asked us questions and they don’t even know us. You invited us to come earlier and you don’t even know us.”
I replied, “You’re right. I don’t know you. But God does. And God loves you.”
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a mother all on her own, trying to raise her boys, who is treated with love and dignity by a strange community called the church. It is like the tears of a young mother rolling down her cheeks in recognition that she is not alone, and that she is loved no matter what.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a group of people striving to be Christ’s body for the world through acts of grace and mercy. It is like volunteers giving out candy to countless children for no other reason than the fact that they too are children of God.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. It is like a church that no longer treats other churches as competition, but instead sees them as brothers and sisters in Christ. It is like a group of people who believe that need trumps greed, that there can be unity in community, and that by the power of God’s grace the world can be transformed.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity. Amen.