Thursday, January 27, 2011

23 January, 2011: "Quarrels Among Us"

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

“Quarrels Among Us”
When Cindy Sheehan, the mother of Specialist Casey Sheehan who died in Iraq, “resigned” from her role as the face of the anti-war movement nearly four years ago, she did so with painful commentary on the state of the so-called peace movement. Citing infighting and jealous turf wars, she wrote:

I have … tried to work within a peace movement that often puts personal egos above peace and human life … It is hard to work for peace when the very movement that is named after it has so many divisions…One of the things that pushed me over the edge was that people on the left were calling me names. How many kicks in the teeth do you have to endure?

When we stand for peace, or for unity, or for one God, we often get caught up in rhetoric and ideology and forget what is most important. This plays out even in movements, as we hear from Ms. Sheehan, that profess to be for peace, and against war. It plays out on the national stage of a so-called “United” States, in rhetoric, vitriol, and escalating violence as we have seen so recently in Tucson. And it plays out within our own Christian church, with the extremes of so-called progressive Christianity and more fundamentalist denominations at times at each other’s proverbial throats. There are serious and painful quarrels among us.
Perhaps unbeknownst to many, this week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This week of the year was initiated by the World Council of Churches to promote ecumenical dialogue, as well as to embrace the diversity, not disunity, within the myriad of Christian denominations. And whether or not we agree on how important this work is, how much we think it matters to the world of the poor, exploited and war-torn, the truth remains that if we cannot practice the central message of our faith, which is love, with our Christian brothers and sisters, where can we practice it?
Many of us understand Paul, particularly in this first letter to the Corinthian church, as the author of moral diatribes against sexual immorality that seem far-fetched to our modern ears. We are often challenged to bring his words and the specific, ancient context of them into relevance today, even if we do learn that Corinth was the Las Vegas of the ancient world: “What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth,” except apparently when Paul heard about it.
In these first few verses of this letter to the Corinthians, however, we learn that Paul is also addressing disunity in the church. He is addressing this first and foremost. Instead of following Christ, we learn that Paul’s church of missionized gentiles and Jews were becoming followers of persuasive men within the church, fracturing the unity of the church and distracting it from its true head: Jesus Christ. In his argument to the church of Corinth, Paul appeals to the members to set aside their love for human knowledge or “cleverness” for a kind of holy “foolishness:” the foolishness of the cross, the foolishness of faith. Men such as Apollos and Cephas whom he refers to were apparently guilty of siphoning off allegiance to Jesus, and the cross, for themselves. No doubt it seemed to them and many others in the church “foolish” and irrational for a man such as Jesus to die for their sins, as though an attorney would die for their defendant. Paul agrees that it does seem foolish indeed. Yet the message that this cross and the event that happened on it is to Paul nothing short of the “power of god.” Paul wanted those in the Corinthian church not to be persuaded by the rational voices of the time, but to believe in the awesome and mysterious grace that had been offered to them through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the gift of salvation. The ability, after all, for those who believed, who were baptized, to be cleansed of their sins through the event of the cross was the whole point, the most spectacular gift of Jesus’ life, the Good News! To see his former congregation beginning to fracture around the persuasion of human words and wisdom, the illusion of rationality, the distraction of rhetoric, when the greatest miracle of all time was there for them, there for their salvation, was too distressing for Paul to behold.
“Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
We in the “progressive” Christian church may find ourselves nonplussed by these persuasive words of Paul. Not only is this not perhaps the face of Christian disunity today as we experience it, but Paul’s atonement theology, that Jesus indeed died to save us from our sins, is one we have questioned for decades, and have largely replaced.
It is a theology of individual spirituality, not of communal spirituality, and not one that addresses the very political nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. We in the UCC in particular embrace an understanding of the cross that is very different, that reveals God’s power of love over the human power of domination and violence. Jesus loved humanity enough to surrender to the violence of domination precisely in order to reveal its very limitation, and to teach us a different way.
So, what do we do with Paul? Do we throw him away? Is it not more important to discard his theology of atonement, to focus on the problems of poverty and oppression than disunity in the Church? Is it not more important for religions to get along with one another than the warring factions within the Christian communion?
Whether or not Paul’s message was based on a different emphasis of the cross, and limited to the baptized, whether or not we consider Christian unity of paramount importance, we are still convicted by his words. We are still vulnerable to losing track of what it is that is most important while we profess to a religion of love. And we also may need to open ourselves up to the notion that our baptism calls us to participate in a daily dying to our sins of exclusion and division.
Our baptism may not mean we are automatically cleansed of our sins, as Paul would have professed, but it calls us on a regular basis to die to that which is not love. We may not believe that in baptism we participate in Jesus’ death and resurrection in the same way that Paul believed, but the “power of God” is still present for us in the message of the cross, it is not? The power of God to transform our hearts and our souls when we allow ourselves to be open, the power of God to replace violence with redeeming love, the power of God to allow us to, over and over again, to be born to a different reality than the one in which we live. This is the Good News. Paul said, “I came not to baptize but to preach the Good News” and to that we can say “Amen!” In other words, “I came not to cause division but to share the good news of communion, of resurrection, of redemption, of hope, of healing, of shared resources, of new life in a world that is filled with death and loss.”
What might this look like, for us, to be in this spirit of Paul?
Rev. Dee Eisenhauer of Eagle Harbor Congregational Church on Bainbridge Island honors this week of Prayer for Christian Unity every year by calling the pastoral leaders of all the other Christian churches on Bainbridge, including the Catholic Church, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, to find out how they are doing. She offers for them to share what they would like Eagle Harbor church members to help celebrate in prayer, and what they would like help with praying for. She then shares this “report” during her Sunday sermon this week. It is a simple gesture, to overlook what divides us in the way of theology and political beliefs and find common ground in the joint practice of prayer. Does doing so bring the churches closer in belief? I don’t think so, nor do I think Dee thinks so. But does it bring us closer as sons and daughters of God, and as followers of Christ? I think so.
This is, in essence, the message of Paul. Are we willing to be Christians first, and the members of the United Church of Christ second? As humans first, and partisans a distant second?
That does not mean we don’t honor our differences. We are not, as the saying goes, “holding hands and singing Kumbaya” while ignoring deep divides. When Pastor Dee picks up the phone each year to reach out to the leaders of the LDS church on Bainbridge, neither party has any illusions about what divides them. But they and their respective congregations are brought closer around what is arguably more important: the wellbeing and dignity of the other, and faith in that which is greater than all of us.
But it does mean to stretch our necks out. We all have felt that Obama’s speeches that preach unity over division have been prophetic. That they come from the mouth piece of what we can only know is the establishment might make us cynical, but they strike a chord in us nonetheless. We can still take the words to heart. It feels risky, and yes, foolish, to stick our necks out to those we consider our enemies, to be vulnerable in a world that appears to be nothing but cruel.
And perhaps if we flex these muscles within our Christian communion, where it may seem the most unlikely to succeed, it may also work to flex these muscles in all areas of our life, both public and private. We can take these lessons of listening first to our mutual humanity to all areas where we face strife and division.
For sure, Paul’s understanding of the cross and who stands to benefit from its good news might be different from ours. But we would do well to remember that what seems wise and strategic to us will likely not bring us new life. The divisions that we fall prey to are exactly that which we must let die on the cross. It is the foolishness of a radical inclusive love that does not take sides, and that places our trust in the love of Jesus Christ to heal wounds we don’t know how to heal ourselves that will bring us new life. May we learn to give up these quarrels among us and in the spirit of foolishness, of radical love and transformation, allow ourselves to enter into a new life with Christ.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

January Reminder Newsletter

January, 2011
Keystone United Church of Christ

From Sophie…
When I arrived here at the end of September there were a lot of projects percolating within this church family. Some of this has been ongoing activity, and some of it hints at long-term change for the community. It feels like an exciting time for the church, and a time to both reflect on the past and build momentum for what will move us into the future. The following is a brief summary of some of what has been discussed and accomplished in recent months.
The Building Committee has been moving forward with efforts to revitalize our “physical plant.” A long-term need to make our building more energy efficient has spurred us to approach PSE for some insight and resources to help us do that. There is also a desire to make our building, including our sanctuary, more multi-purpose and accessible: to this end we are moving toward a planned renovation of the sanctuary floor, including leveling it and replacing some of the pews with chairs. This would allow larger groups to gather there than are possible elsewhere in the church, as well as make it more suitable a space for what the Keystone worship Community has become.
The health and appearance of the exterior has also been a concern: our front entrance and Narthex have a neglected appearance and have been somewhat closed in by surrounding vegetation. Nuts and bolts projects for addressing this concern have included the removal of a few trees that were impinging on the church roof and walls, and replacing the broken and dark Narthex glass with more transparent, tempered glass. The latter will improve our appearance and allow more light inside at the same time. A future step will be to renew the paint on that fa├žade of the church and evaluate how to spruce up the exterior cross.
Another exciting dimension of making the church more accessible to the community is a renewed interest in equipping the stairs to the second floor with a wheelchair lift. This would increase the accessible space of our church by a huge percentage!
The Communications Committee has spent some time looking at a couple different dimensions of how the church presents itself to the rest of the surrounding community. We continue to energize our online presence through keeping up our blog and our Facebook page, and to prioritize our interaction as a community through email and a future printed photo directory. We have also looked at improving our physical visibility in the community through increased signage and creating and distributing affordable flyers strategically throughout the community. In the process of discussing these ideas we’ve also asked one another, “What is our ideal size of church community?” I suspect we would get as many answers as there are members now: some enjoy and value the size we are now and its comfortable family feel. Some wouldn’t mind a larger size membership that would help us feel more energized. Others feel that the sky should be the limit. All agree that we want to be welcoming community to all newcomers, without putting too much emphasis on numbers as a measure of the health of our community.
The Social Justice Committee continues to spearhead efforts that extend our mission for social justice into the community. Members poured effort into political initiatives during the last election; we were treated to information and food nuggets during a presentation on the connection between the food industry and global warming on 10.10.10, and outreach continues to local community shelters for the homeless. With the help of the Social Justice Committee we are continuing to build on our certification as a “Green Congregation” by recommitting to low impact foods for our shared meals, and pursuing related topics through the Book Study Group. The legacy of Keystone: the ability of our energy and commitment to social justice matters to defy our small numbers continues!

From Rich

On the third Sunday in Advent (December), I preached about our calling as people of faith. As part of that sermon I put out an idea. In case you were not there here is the quote from the sermon.

“I have been thinking about starting a new program at Keystone. This new program would train people (probably young people) for a life a faithful action. In this program we would call 5 or so people to work for a year as our missionaries. They would work in justice based organizations, organizations that cannot afford to have enough staff. They would live together in a house. They would live very simply. They would participate in classes that would teach them about a justice based Christianity and provide them with the tools of social change. And they would be required to participate in the life of this church.

We would make sure that they have a place to live, food to eat, access to healthcare, and a little spending money (very little). We would make sure that they had good organizations to work with and we would make sure that they had our support.

Given that there are so many young people out there who have graduated college and cannot find meaningful employment. Given the need to teach others about the importance of justice for people of faith and the importance of faith for people seeking a just world. Given that we have (I hope) the skills and resources to pull this off. I think now may be the time. But the cost to us for this may be over $60, 000 for one year. And the program may end after the first year. $60 thousand is a lot of money from our savings. It will not add one cushion to our hard pews, it will not add one layer of paint to the sad exterior of this building. It offers nothing but the possibility to do good work and train young people do such work in the future.

Think about it.”

This project would take money and time from our resources. The $60,000-$70,000 figure is an estimate of worst case costs. I don’t want to sugar coat it. It could cost us a lot. It also takes a great deal of faith to think that providing one year of training and experience for five people will make the world a better place.

It is something we can do. The question is whether it is something we are called to do.

See the Upcoming Schedule for Friday Night Meaningful Movies:

Report from Committees:

1. Communication Committee: The December meeting of the communications was attended by half a dozen rousing Keystone community members, as well as Julia’s sister MaryBeth. We divvied up various media outlets (including bulletin boards, online networks, free newspapers) for distributing more information about happenings at Keystone. We are continuing with our existing communication efforts within our own community through email and “social networking,” as well as brainstorming other ways of reaching out to our surrounding community. We plan to introduce a couple of signage options (based on material and basic structure) for the church to the next congregational meeting in January or early February.

2. Building: Improvements to the physical structure of the building and its surroundings are noted above in Sophie’s newsletter message. The Committee would like to note that the landscaping work was donated by the church’s neighbor Bill. We are looking for more volunteers to assist with further landscaping projects near the front of the building to help upgrade our daytime appearance. Stay tunes for updates on further church building projects.

3. Social Justice: The social action committee plans to serve another meal at Sacred Heart on January 21st. Members were encouraged to attend the Environmental Priorities Coalition Workshop on Saturday Jan 8th from 9:30 - 2:45 at Seattle Pacific University, Gwinn Room. Following this, attendees can then go to Olympia for Environmental Lobby Day on February 15, 2011.

Scripture readings
9 January: Jer 31:7-14; John 1:10-18
16 January: Isa 49:1-7; John 1: 29-42
23 January: Isa 9:1-4; 1 Cor 1:10-18; Matt 4:12-23
30 January: Micah 6:1-8; Matt 5:1-15

Reader/usher schedule
1/9 Gus Wall/Jo Winston
1/16 Rita Patterson/Steve Bauck
1/23 Chandra Vandermost/Bill Gough
1/30 Sandra Schumacher/Janet Stillman
2/6 Rich Voget/Gloria Bollens

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christianity: Is it What you Thought?

A discussion series meeting on Thursday evenings from 6:30 – 8:30pm
20 January – 17 February, 2011

This series will provide an opportunity to challenge what we think Christianity says about Creation (& Science), Wealth, Women, Forgiveness and War/Nonviolence in a series of five evenings. As a group we spend time identifying what some of historical understandings of Christianity are: the so-called “myths” that have become tools of oppression and exclusion over the centuries. Because so much of what we know about Christianity is based on the written tradition, we will look at how some of these myths originated in the Bible. We will then explore these passages in such a way as to invite a different vision, a “counter-myth,” that understands Christianity more as a faith based on radical inclusion and love.

Join us for engaging discussion, hands-on exercises, and myth-busting dialogue with the 2000 year old tradition of Christianity!

This series will be led and facilitated by Sophie Morse, Associate Pastor at Keystone United Church of Christ. 5019 Keystone Place N. Wallingford. We will be meeting in Battson Fellowship Hall (downstairs from the sanctuary).

Call 206.632.6021 or email for more information.