1 Corinthians 1:10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:17-22,33
I went with the We Are Church: Together title for tonight’s sermon, that is to say, “Diversity and Challenges” but if I’d have named it I think I would have went with something a little more direct. Something like “The Problem With Being Different.” I say that because being different in the church is a problem. Doing something differently in the church is a problem. The problem with being different is that it creates divisions within the body of Christ and there’s not supposed to be divisions. But there are.
We talked about that last week with the divisions in the Corinthian church when it came to communion. We revisit that text today and the also the first part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. He’s pretty adamant about not having divisions among you. A problem then and a problem that manifests itself in far too many churches today.
There are institutional differences. For example, in a denomination that is 96% white, the challenge of race diversity is a difficult one to get around. And that’s not an exaggeration for effect. That’s the actual number. This is in spite of the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, our denomination, has been pushing to reach out to people of color for over 30 years.
Why is that, I wonder? Some would say we’re inherently racist. There’s probably some underlying truth to that to a certain extent but I think the real answer is a whole lot simpler. Lutherans usually have a liturgical style of worship that follows a specific form, born out of northern and central Europe. In other words, born out of a time and place with primarily white people. Conversely, many people of color have different styles of worship that originated out of southern Europe and Africa. I’m generalizing wildly but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark. Both are fine and good and are legitimate ways to encounter God but they are very different in style.
The conflict comes from the fact that we tend toward the familiar and anything different is unsettling. Not good nor bad but sometimes uncomfortable. If you’ve ever been to a worship service in the black church you know what I mean. The last one I went to was at Salem Baptist in Omaha and it was two or three hours long with the sermon taking on a full hour. Lots of noise and an amazing choir. Oh, the pastor’s wife is often referred to as the First Lady. Now, out of all of those things, how many do you recognize here?
Now, flip that around. Invite someone from the black church tradition here. What do you suppose the response might be? Disbelief? What do you mean it only takes an hour and the sermon is only 12 minutes? The pastor’s wife goes by Lora? Well, at least they have very good music.
What we end up with is division. In this example no one is wrong exactly but when we become so entrenched in our approach to things that we won’t do anything differently then we run afoul of what Paul is talking about.
Moving from the larger institutional divisions, what more local or individual divisions have you run across in your church history? I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed it personally but I know people who have and that’s the cliché of arguing over the color of the carpet. Newsflash, it doesn’t matter! There is some utility to having carpet that hides stains I guess but other than that, no real reason to concern ourselves with the ‘proper’ color of carpet. It’s all personal opinion and if your personal opinion causes division then Paul will not be happy with you.
It gets a little ridiculous sometimes. This wasn’t a division thing but it is a carpet thing and it underscores how silly we can be sometimes. At my first call with St Timothy’s in Omaha it was well known that the senior pastor didn’t like red koolaid in the building. Altar guild knew it, children and family ministry knew it, the kitchen folks knew it. After I’d heard this about 57 times (there I AM exaggerating for illustration), after I’d heard this about 57 times I went into the senior pastor’s office one day and asked him what the deal was with him and red koolaid? “What did red koolaid do to you that was so bad that you hate it so much”, I asked him. He had no idea what I was talking about and when I told him everyone knew he hated red koolaid he was taken aback. Then he explained that he didn’t care about red koolaid one way or the other. What he didn’t like about it is that it would stain the carpets. But there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth about red koolaid. Oops, sorry, that’s a phrase for Sunday sermons, isn’t it?
Whatever, we sometimes get in our own way when it comes to being the church. Together. The biggest division I’ve seen comes from the 2009 churchwide assembly statement on sexuality. That caused the birth of yet another Lutheran denomination. I can sort of see that because that at least has a theological debate at its root. But arguing over the color of the carpet, or the style of worship, or the worship times just doesn’t track with being a follower of Christ. In 2011 when we moved the early worship service time from 9:30 to 9:00 so we could have kids in worship AND have an hour for faith formation it caused some grief with a few folks. We didn’t really have a division over it because they just left. Similarly, when St Timothy’s changed the early worship style at the early service from full on traditional to a chapel service, they didn’t have division exactly but people left because of it. Which is truly ironic because the reason the change was made was because there were more people in worship leadership than sitting in the pews.
All this to be underscore the idea that we must be very careful in our approach to being church. When we make our worship decisions based on our preferences then we may be making worship about us when in fact worship is about God, first and foremost. That’s the same problem with have with most divisions in the church. Maybe not all but most come back to the idea that we make church about us instead of God.
The worst kind of division? That’s the division you don’t see or notice. Kind of like what we have going on here at Spirit of Hope now. Did you notice we are widely divided? We are but it isn’t terribly noticeable and therein lies the root cause of THAT division. We’re divided on lines of how long you’ve been here. If you’ve been here 4 years or more you’re in one group and less than 4 there’s another group. If you don’t believe me take a look around right now or at any get together outside of worship on Sunday. There are a few exceptions but generally speaking the people at Lenten Wednesday worship have been around a while. The people who supported the youth at the French Chef Café dinner were by and large folks that have been around a while. Here’s another test. Name the people in our last new member gathering in the fall. Tim and Jackie. Us ‘Old Guard’ have not done a great job of integrating new people into Spirit of Hope and that’s at the bottom of our financial struggles. Not that that is a good reason to welcome people, but it is an effect. We’re doing lots of things to turn this around, like the small group following Easter and Parents 2 Parents coming back in the fall so when the opportunity presents, please jump in.
One way or the other, division is the opposite of what God wants. We’re seriously all in this as church. Together. Bound together in our baptism through the power of the Holy Spirit and united once again as we come together to the Holy Meal. We often see these as the results of all of our daily tasks throughout the week but in reality these are the foundations of our week where we do all the daily tasks. It’s easy to forget the order of operations here. It’s also easy to remind ourselves that God is first and foremost. Everything else comes in second.