If you go to NJSynod.org and search for Core Values, you’ll find 6 core values listed there. They are:
- And interdependence
As I thought about today’s Gospel reading – about Jesus saying he’s come to bring, not peace, but division to the earth, I found myself questioning, as I’m pretty sure you are as well, just what he’s getting at. Jesus is the One we call the Prince of Peace, the One whose birth is announced by angels singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace.” So what’s going on here?
Both our current Bishop, Tracie Bartholomew, and Roy Riley, who served as Bishop when these core values were named, have said to me in conversation at various times that, every time a congregation gets in serious trouble, one or more of these core values has been neglected, and more than not, it’s the sense of our interdependence that’s really been lost. We are the body of Christ, and as such, we are completely interdependent, as much as each part of our physical body is dependent upon the rest. The Apostle Paul teaches us that elsewhere, right? Interdependence is important.
Then, along with interdependence, we hold the values of respect and diversity, or we might say: in order to be truly interdependent, we must respect one another, and truly value the gift of diversity…
There’s a sense in which congregations can look like they’re unified, like they’re at peace with one another. Such a sense of unity can even be their perceived reality on a certain level. A congregation might experience a sort of peace and unity, but if that peace and unity is based on the wrong things, then it’s no longer a thing to be valued. People can find unity with one another based on things that are most certainly anti-Christ, and they can feel real good about themselves in the process. A community can feel real proud of themselves for not having any division, but is that necessarily something to be valued?
The folks behind the web site www.preachingpeace.org write:
It is a sad fact that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated
moments in every week. Almost all Christians in the United States
will drive past three or four churches to worship in one where we
feel we’re among the “like minded” if not the “like skinned.” “High
Church,” “Low Church,” “Full Gospel,” “Social Justice,” all of these
become identity markers that help us define our sameness, our unity
as a congregation.
All these “unities” are the kind of “undifferentiated” peace that Jesus
comes to destroy.
It’s an important distinction to make, between unity, in terms of interdependence based on respecting our diversity, and sameness, or like-mindedness, based on things that are not central to our understanding of Jesus and his teachings. Jesus has not come to bring sameness and like-mindedness which can lead to a certain kind of peace, but division. And those divisions will have their effect on multiple levels, within communities large and small, and even down to the most intimate of relationships – fathers and sons, daughters and mothers.
For our purposes today, I think we need to hear these words of Jesus, and some of the things we find in our other readings, and consider them in light of what it means to be a community of faith, to be a member congregation of the NJ Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America here and now. Specifically, to consider together where we find ourselves as a congregation in that description I shared from Preaching Peace.
We are clearly a segregated congregation. When you consider that we draw members from several neighboring towns and municipalities, and you consider the racial, gender and age demographics found in those places, we simply do not reflect those demographics. We just don’t. The ELCA has been struggling with this issue for years now, and, across the church, we just do not reflect the demographics of our country.
We are divided, only, not in the sense that Jesus lifts up as being his mission on earth. We divide into independent groups, specifically because we do not want to have to deal with people who don’t
- Think like us
- Look like us
- Pray like us
- Sing like us
- Practice the sacraments like us
- Have relationships or form families that look like ours
- Vote like us
Make the list as long as you want, include whatever categories, secular and/or sacred, that you want to include, the fact of the matter is simply this: We don’t value interdependence based on respecting one another for who we are – respecting and honoring the amazing diversity we have as God’s people. Or as you’ve heard me say it over and over and over for nearly 6 years now, we do not honor the image and likeness of God in one another. Instead, we choose to divide over things that are not central to life or the faith. And to our shame, we do it in the name of God and God’s Church. We end up like so many false prophets, speaking a word that is NOT from God, and doing so in the name of God, and God, through the prophet Jeremiah, makes it crystal clear just what God thinks of people who speak a false word in God’s name. It’s right there in our first reading from Jeremiah 23.
But notice, in verse 28, God also encourages those who do rightly speak God’s word to do so faithfully, even when doing so will be experienced as fire, or like a hammer breaking rock into pieces. We must be faithful in proclaiming God’s word, not just things that make us feel good about ourselves, or things that don’t rock the metaphorical boat, but God’s word.
And in case we forget what that word sounds like, or have a hard time discerning which Word is God’s, as we’re seemingly bombarded by non-stop words from all sides
- From radio and TV talking heads
- And social media
- And the internet
- And the 24 hour news cycle
- And, and, and
Psalm 82 serves as a clear reminder of what God’s word sounds like, a clear reminder of what God cares about, as the psalmist pictures God standing among all the other gods of the earth, in the heavenly council, bringing judgment into their midst
- Calling for justice
- For the saving of the weak
- For the defense of the needy
- For the rescue and deliverance of the weak and poor who are exploited by the power of the wicked.
But I’ll tell you what, there’s no easier way to reveal people’s fears and to uncover those dirty little secret injustices we harbor deep inside, hidden away, than to begin really living into the vision of justice the Psalmist points us to – the vision of an interdependent community that truly values diversity, and defends those others take advantage of and exclude, a community that respects and honors those who are different, even when those differences make us uncomfortable.
One form of diversity that congregations face is in worship.
It’s no secret that there are diverse styles of music, and forms of musical accompaniment, and liturgical symbols and actions that have become part of our life together as a congregation that push some of our buttons. People have chosen to deal with those uncomfortable experiences in various ways.
- Some have left the congregation
- Some walk out of services when things they don’t like happen
- Some close their worship books and stand in silent protest
- Some write me 27 page, single spaced letters of complaint and argument
- Some grumble behind the scenes
- Some ask questions – good question – and seek to understand
- Some, understanding that the Church is bigger than just this one congregation, do their best to see our mission as part of the larger mission of a very broad and very diverse Church made up of the people of God in every time and place, and with that vision in mind, they strive to find value in new ways of doing old things.
Of course, there are other forms of diversity faced by congregations.
Congregations that have taken steps toward greater inclusivity, be it based
- on worship styles
- Or race
- Or ethnicity
- Or sexual orientation
- Or gender identity
- Or economic status
- Or involvement in any number of social justice issues
pretty much across the board report a certain amount of fear-based resistance. “What if people leave because they disagree?” Or in the words of today’s Gospel: “What if our peace is turned to division?” Well, all I can tell you is, doing the Jesus thing isn’t easy, and it never was. And it just might look like division and conflict a lot more than it looks like a peaceful family of folks who all get along.
In fact, when you decide to do the Jesus thing in the world, I can guarantee that it will lead to one thing, absolutely, for sure. It will lead to the cross!
Which leaves us with one last consideration.
Are we disciples of Jesus, or not? Are we among those who run the race, surrounded by the great cloud of faithful witnesses?
Disciples of Jesus are those who take up the cross and follow him to death. Disciples of Jesus are those who run life’s race with perseverance, following behind and looking to Jesus who blazes the trail before us, and who also comes behind us perfecting the path we trod. Disciples of Jesus go this way with joy, not apprehension, following in faith, not fear, disregarding the shame of the cross for the glory of being children of the Kingdom of God.
We may end up like those who conquer kingdoms and obtain promises, or we may end up like those who were sawn in two, left destitute and tormented. Only time will tell. And only God knows. But what we know, what we must always remember, is that God in Christ goes before us as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith and we can trust in that no matter what.