Sunday Night Worship – 1/27/08

“What Kind of Christian Are You?”
I Corinthians 1: 10-18

Late last fall I spent a morning at Planned Parenthood. The Charlottesville Planned Parenthood has two departments – healthcare and advocacy – and there is a group of Clergy Friends who work with the advocacy department to help support the organization and the women who come seeking healthcare.

That particular morning the Clergy Friends were there to hold a press conference to highlight a letter we wrote together. It’s an open letter to women who are faced with making decisions about how to proceed with or discontinue their pregnancies. In the letter we express compassion and support and we offer our pastoral services to anyone who would like to call on us.

There were supposed to be two components to our morning. First we were planning to hold a press conference and then we were going to walk outside to the edge of the property along Hydraulic Road to meet the protestors. At that time there was a month long campaign by a national group that mobilized local Christians to protest Planned Parenthood for providing abortions as one of their healthcare options. Sometime before I joined this group it had been decided that, following the press conference, we would walk outside and offer doughnuts and coffee to the protestors.

My first reaction to this plan was distaste. I did not really care to hang out with the protestors and I did not want to be part of whatever argument could ensue from “crossing the lines” and heading outside. Clearly, both groups were there for different reasons and weren’t going to be able to talk or get along.

I also thought that our offering of refreshments was a little on the showy side. How convenient that the press was going to be with us to see how gracious our side was! I anticipated the paper the next day, picturing someone in a clerical collar beatifically smiling and holding out coffee to cold and angry protestors. I didn’t like the set up.

As it turns out, the local press never showed up to cover the press conference so this mental picture never made it to the front page. But as it also turns out, the Clergy Friends were genuine in their desire to reach out not just to women facing pregnancies but also to those protesting some of the decisions those women make. After regrouping and planning other opportunities for connecting with the press, we got our coats and gloves on and headed outside with our offerings.

No one was deterred by the lack of press. No one suggested that we wait and do that part another day, too. I was still uncomfortable.

When I had arrived at the office earlier that morning, I noticed the protestors out at the road and wondered what it must be like to drive past displays like that on your way to work each day. I wondered what it had been like before the court rulings that protestors must remain out on the road, on public property.

When I got to the door and couldn’t open it, I noticed the sign directing visitors to press the intercom to be let in to the building. I wondered again about what it would be like to work in that environment every day. Once I was let into the building, I still could not go anywhere; I was in between several sets of locked doors and a receptionist sat behind a glass window with a another intercom to help us talk to one another. She had to buzz me through the correct set of doors. By the time I got to our meeting room I was pondering the commitment of the staff.

Let me say that this sermon is not about my personal take on the abortion controversy. Though I would be happy to discuss the issues with any of you, that is not the point here. This sermon is about the kind of Christians we are called to be.

I have to say that I was not a good example of this kind of Christian that day at Planned Parenthood. My first impulse was disdain for the protesters. It’s true that I wasn’t anxious for us clergy to display our extremely gracious nature out in the streets, but frankly that was more about avoiding conflict and hanging out with the like-minded than it was about openness to other Christian points of view.

That day I was exactly the kind of Christian Paul was writing to at Corinth: one defined more by cultural sensibilities and opinions than by Christian identity. If the only choices are called “pro-choice” and “pro-life” then I side with the pro-choice. But they are not truly the only choices and regardless of the ways I have been formed by Roe vs. Wade and the era in which I grew up, my most important formation is supposed to be my identity as a Christian.

A good friend of mine likes to say that God gives us siblings so that we are forced to hang out with people we would never otherwise know. He means this in terms of blood family brothers and sisters but it works pretty well for our Christian family, too. We don’t choose to be part of this clan. It’s God who chooses us and claims us in baptism and forms a motley crew of a family out of this bunch of sinners.

Paul uses the words “brothers and sisters” 38 times in I Corinthians. This is more than twice the number of times he says this in any other letter (New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol X, p. 773). Do you think maybe he was trying to make a point?

It can be hard to follow ancient controversies but what seems clear about this group at Corinth was that their community had disintegrated to the point that the way they “one-upped” each other was to claim either Paul or Apollos or Cephas. Depending on who baptized you, you might say something like, “I belong to Paul” to show your importance or rank or true discipleship (I Cor. 1: 12). Paul wouldn’t have any of it. Without an ounce of ego he writes, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (v.13). Then he goes on to name the very few he did baptize, just to set the record straight and de-mystify the lore.

Has Christ been divided? I love the way he lets that one just hang there! How else can you answer that except, No! Of course not! Well then, if Christ has not been divided choosing any one “part” of him does not make any sense. If Christ has not been divided then trying to rank Christian attributes does not make any sense.  Ah, but the cross of Christ always seems a bit foolish in the eyes of the world, doesn’t it? (v. 18)

What makes this group different from any other group in Corinth at the time? What makes a group of Christians stand out – as we are called to do – over and against the way of the world?

What kind of Christian are you? There should be only one answer to this question but, if you’re like me, when you saw the title What Kind of Christian Are You? a few “kinds” probably starting going through your mind. Evangelical, progressive, conservative, God-fearing, activist…Any of these sound familiar? How about Christians who are hawks or doves, republicans or democrats, pro- or anti-gun, environmentalists or oil barons? And closer to home, right here in worship, contemporary or traditionalist?

You have heard me talk about “incarnational theology” before, how important it is to take seriously our bodies and physical surroundings when thinking theologically. If a human body was a fitting place for God to be born and live, then human bodies and lives can all be instruments of the holy and places of God’s continual revelation. So it follows that it matters whether or not we are men or women, gay or straight, black or white, old or young….These things matter in how we receive and approach the world, how we conceive of things, and how we relate to others.

They matter, but for us as Christians they can not be the most important markers of our identity. They must serve as expression of our Christian identity, not the other way around. When we identify first and foremost as anything other than God’s children, followers of Christ, we choose something less important over the one and only thing that makes us who we are.

Ok, fine. But how do we do this? How do we become family with people we would rather hate or at the very least, vilify? How do we move toward the unity that is our birthright and our calling as Christians?

I had three initial ideas: listen, pray, and practice love.

Listen because what we more often do is wait to hear the things we want to disagree with. It’s a very different thing to sit with someone who holds a radically different view from your own and seek to really hear what they say, without retort or debate, but just open ears.

Pray because without that not much else is possible. And I mean this mainly because – whatever else it does for others and for the world at large – prayer changes the pray-er. And we all have hearts in need of change and a larger capacity for love.

And I said practice love because we think too often of love as a state of being or something we feel or receive. The practice of love is like any other practice – law, piano, basketball – it requires that we make a routine of it. In order to become proficient we have to keep submitting ourselves to the discipline.

I don’t know if you have read or heard of the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s a spiritual awakening quest story and mostly a good read. It’s made quite a splash on the bestseller list and the title has a great cadence: Eat, Pray, Love. So there I was with my sermon notes and my list of how to move toward unity: listen, pray, practice love. Immediately the book title came to me and I noticed how similar they were. If only I could find a way to fit “eat” into a sermon…

Maybe eat, pray, love is a better list. It’s the eating. Because this table it the one where we practice behaving as family – no matter what.

When I see protestors at Clinics on TV, they are angry and sometimes violent. I had let those images seep in too much. Do you know who was out on the sidewalk that day last fall? Grandmothers and church ladies. Little old women, mostly Catholic, some Baptist, who were proud to tell us which congregations they belong to. And though one or two were suspicious of us at first, they graciously accepted hot drinks and sweet treats from us.

As we stood there in the cold at the edge of the road with cars zooming past, I was ashamed for my earlier disdain. I was ashamed that I had had no interest in seeking out these sisters of ours. I was ashamed that though I had willingly wondered what type of commitment the staff makes every day, I had not wondered or cared much about the commitment of these sisters who stood on the sidewalk praying for the people inside. I was humbled by this and by those brothers and sisters in the clergy who seemed to have gotten it way before I did. I don’t agree with my sisters at the road on a lot of things. But, from a Christian point of view, the one thing that matters is that we are family, united in Christ.

Has Christ been divided? Not divided, but broken. On our own, we have no power to make family of one another. On our own, we get caught up in the causes and themes of the moment and lose sight sometimes of what it means to live with the assurance of eternal life. On our own, we can barely say a civil word to each other sometimes. But with our undivided, broken Savior, we have the power to be foolish saints.

When we gather around this table it is Christ’s Spirit who unites us, who heals broken hearts and mends broken lives. In the broken bread we are made whole. When we gather here it is the Spirit of Christ who calls us home for a meal around the family table.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah Lewis 2008