02.12.2017 Preaching Text: “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:7)
Paul is at it again this week. And what’s most surprising, perhaps, is his willingness to persist in discussing openly the problems in his beloved church, a community he founded during one of his early missionary efforts.
As I’ve said before, we tend to romanticize the early church and thus lose sight of the fact that all churches, both past and present, are made up of fallible human beings.
The lectionary readings for today, not coincidentally, focus on the law, a necessary antidote to our fallibility, though a subject we today tend to avoid like the plague. Nonetheless you cannot read scripture without constantly bumping into it – and that goes for the New Testament as well.
In today’s gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus actually compounds the demands of Mosaic Law. He talks about how it forbids murder, but then argues that we are liable to judgment for merely being angry with one another! He describes the consequences in gory detail.
The law of Jesus Christ, ultimately, can be condensed into this pithy statement: to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. That means we’re commanded to love God and neighbor perfectly. (Talk about Jesus not abolishing the Law!!! – Matthew 5:17)
But back to Paul. He sees anything but Christ’s law being practiced in Corinth. Instead he sees leaders seeking to divide and conquer, whose interests are focused more on serving their own particular clique than submitting to God’s truth. Lost amid this kind of tribalism is the mystical unity of the church body as established under the authority of its head, Jesus Christ.
Recently I was handed a piece of paper from a local organization which lists what it calls its “5 Principles.” I’d like to quote 2 of them. The first reads as follows: “We treat each other with respect, meaning that we listen and we tolerate different opinions and personal styles.”
The second is similar to the first: “We hold leadership lightly, as stewardship and service, and share it without ego investment.” Hmm…
Coincidentally, the Deacons published in this morning’s bulletin an announcement which quotes the covenant in our by-laws, a covenant we all made before God and each other when we publicly confessed our desire to become a part of this community of faith. It sounds not all that different from the first “principle” I just read.
We are to treat one another with respect. That, of course, sounds nice, and no doubt we all would agree “in principle.” But do we practice it?
This is especially difficult given the second part of the statement: “to listen” and “to tolerate different opinions…”
Today we live in angry times. It’s depressing to read the paper, turn on the television, or scan the internet. We are a deeply divided society, politically, socially, and culturally. As such, nothing could be more difficult for us than “listening” or “tolerating” different opinions.
This is especially problematic given that the church tends to mimic the secular values around it. We import them mostly unconsciously.
As an example, I’ve been observing with some amazement the high anxiety that the last presidential election has produced, not just in the culture, but, of all places, in the church. Just this past week, in fact, the Harwich Clergy Association spent a bit of time considering various strategies by which our church people can face their “anxiety’ over the results of the election.
As a pastor, I find this curious, and not because one can’t or shouldn’t be disappointed by the results of an election. But while the clergy group cast about for possible antidotes to this anxiety, I found myself wondering why we don’t just try the gospel.
My understanding of the Christian faith, in other words, is that we live in a fallen world, one that can and will disappoint us. I learned this, in fact, as a child. No election result, therefore, good or bad, ought to cause a Christian to be a.) surprised and/or b.) thrown into abject despair.
For me at least, passing the right laws and electing the right politicians (or passing the wrong laws and electing the wrong politicians) does not define or deflect from my spiritual life. It might even strengthen it. I might be disappointed, as I say. Then again, I never allowed myself to believe that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would ever take me, or anyone else, to the Promised Land.
The level of angst in the church caused by the recent election, therefore, suggests that perhaps we mainline Christians have put too much stock in the political process. For it has always seemed to me that the best way to effect positive change in our world is through spiritual change, by changing hearts and minds, which has always been the meat and potatoes, the very heart, of the church’s mission. It’s why we’re here, in fact.
Thus to allow ourselves to bring the political world’s tribalism and associated angers into our churches is unfortunate, unwise, and, dare I say it, not particularly faithful.
Which brings us to the subject of leadership, the second of the local organization’s “principles.” Leadership, it insists, should be based on stewardship and service pursued and “shared” without “ego investment.”
This is critical. For not only does leadership require an openness to different ideas and opinions, church leadership necessarily involves stewarding our God-given gifts selflessly in the service of…Christ!
With no small amount of irony, church growth “experts” report that despite the fact that virtually every church on the planet says it wants to grow (I threw in that “planet” thing myself!), when they do, conflict is often the result!
The reason, when you stop and think about it, is fairly obvious. When churches grow, new people come in. And these new people bring different backgrounds, experiences, ideas, and understandings.
Some of these new members may actually feel God calling them to serve on boards or committees, or even, gasp, serve in leadership positions!
This, as I say, can be a problem. After all, we have a certain way of doing things. It’s all well and good that these new people have joined (and are pledging), but they’ll need to learn how we do things and fit in with our expectations.
This attitude can be subtle, but it’s real, and problematic. To counter this, church leadership requires, as the principle reads, a “light” touch, one that listens and tolerates different opinions, different ideas, and the various people who hold them. (The very opposite of tribalism, I might add.)
In the end, Paul makes a starling claim, one that doesn’t really sound all that startling. He says, “So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
So I guess church leaders not as important as we think we are. Not you. Not I. Our value is based solely on how faithfully we endeavor to prepare the proper conditions so that God’s growth can take place.
Such requires leadership that is open, attentive, tolerant, and ego-less, which holds its “power” lightly.
After all, Christ’s law demands it. Amen.