A few years ago country singer Toby Keith came out with a song which will be running through a lot of your heads for the rest of the service after I have reminded you of it. Most of the song is about his girl friend, with lines like these:
We talk about your dreams and we talk about your schemes
Your high school team and your moisturizing cream
We talk about your heart, about your brains and your smarts
And your medical charts and when you start
You know talking about you makes me grin
But every now and then….
And now he gets to his point:
I want to talk about me
I want to talk about I
Want to talk about number one, oh my me my,
What I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see
I like talking about you, you, you, you usually, but occasionally
I want to talk about me.
And this is where we are. We can talk about you, or we can talk about me. And when it comes to politics and religion, it is a rare person who is actually interested in listening to you talk about your thoughts on issues unless they are in lockstep with what their thoughts are. Instead of listening, most people are preparing a rebuttal.
In chapter 4, the author of Ephesians says, “I want to talk about us.” Who is “us”? Jews and Gentiles, males and females, slaves and free people who have been brought together to form the Christian church, the body of Christ. In previous chapters, this unity is proclaimed as an accomplished fact through Jesus Christ, who by his life, death and resurrection has brought down the dividing walls and hostilities and created one unified body. Now the author acknowledges that if the members of that body do not live into that unity in meaningful ways it will not hold up as a human institution. He emphasizes the urgency when he starts out saying, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”
He lays out what that kind of life will look like, and you will note that it is not primarily about me, not primarily about you, it is about us. Live “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
That all sounds very nice and simple, but trying to live that way as a Christian and as a church is probably the hardest work you will ever do. It goes against the grain of everything we experience in our culture. Humility? Gentleness? Patience? Bearing with one another in love? Striving for unity and peace? Who are you kidding? I want to talk about me, want to talk about I, want to talk about number one, oh my, me my, what I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see.
You’ve heard me say things like this so much you are probably tired of it. I believe the most important thing a church can do in 21st century America is to model a community where the individual and his or her rights are not exalted at the expense of the welfare of the community as a whole. It’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s about us. It’s not about being right on every issue, as if that was even possible, and it’s not about making judgments about who is worthy and who is not worthy to be here. It’s about recognizing in humility that we are pretty small potatoes in the great scheme of things where there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. As we look around we see equally small potatoes, all of us undeserving, all of us struggling in various ways. The qualities which will allow us to build a vital community are humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other, love, and peace. Hardly an easy task.
In the next section the author helps us understand this task more fully as he talks about the diversity of callings we find within the community. He talks about roles people are called to as pastors, teachers, evangelists, and prophets. Different roles are going to have different emphases. If each one insists on their own area being what the church needs to solely focus on, you’ve got big problems. Pastors are going to want to care for the needs of their flock and building and keep everything on an even keel. Teachers are going to want to push everyone to learn as much as they can about their beliefs and teach and train their children in the proper way. Evangelists are going to want to get everyone out of their seats and out of the building out into the community to be winning new souls to Christ. Prophets are going to want to criticize the king and the wealthy and speak out for the homeless and those in prison. There are lots of agendas in these different callings, and some of them can work against the others.
The author says these are not in competition. They are all legitimate callings from the Spirit, and their role is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” In the apparent messiness of a community where people are living out a variety of callings which don’t always seem to be on the same page, we are called to grow into maturity where we can accept that and not be threatened or troubled by it.
Nor are we to allow a person with tunnel vision to sway us into believing that you are not a true Christian if you don’t look at things the exact same way he or she does. The author writes, “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.”
The area which is particularly fraught with danger for the church, and always has been, is politics. I have friends who are absolutely convinced that the Democratic Party has the mind of God in all things. I have friends who are absolutely convinced that the Republican Party has the mind of God in all things. If we could just provide universal health care for everyone, pass gun control legislation, and provide free college for everyone, the kingdom of God would be just around the corner. Or if we could just build the wall on the border, get rid of Obamacare, and build a bigger military, the kingdom of God would be just around the corner. Christians and churches have allowed themselves to be used as tools in furthering the ambitions and policies of politicians and parties and talking heads.
If churches cannot be places where people from all political persuasions can feel accepted and valued and can learn to accept and value those who are polar opposites, then we ought to just close the doors. In an age when civility and compromise have left the premises, the church must resist the temptation to act the same way. We must do the hard work of “bearing with one another,” walking a mile in each other’s shoes, listening to each other’s stories, caring about each other on a deeper level than our political views.
An extraordinary drama has played out on the national stage this week which very much relates to what I am talking about. Senator John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer. Many rallied around and sent expressions of prayerful support and encouragement. But there were others. The person he defeated in the last primary called on him to resign immediately and suggested that she would be the right person to be selected to represent the people of Arizona in the Senate. A religious leader suggested that this was God’s judgment on John McCain for not being a reliable Republican. I’m sure there are not many churches in which he is being lifted up as an example today, which is scandalous.
You know the story, that McCain had surgery and was back in the Senate by the middle of the week. When he was welcomed back by his colleagues he made a speech to them. This speech is what I want to focus on, not his vote which is what everyone talks about. His words were the words of a man who knows he is dying and will never have to face reelection again and is unafraid of what anyone will think of what he has to say. And what he had to say was that the Senate needed to remember it is a community in which they need to accept each other, bear with each other, and work together for the good of the country they serve. You probably read or heard a couple of sentences of the speech, because ten seconds or one paragraph is about the limit allowed anymore, but this was an important message which one can hope might be taken to heart by at least some. Here is some of what he said:
“I have known and admired men and women in the Senate who played much more than a small role in our history, true statesmen, giants of American politics. They came from both parties, and from various backgrounds. Their ambitions were frequently in conflict. They held different views on the issues of the day. And they often had very serious disagreements about how best to serve the national interest. But they knew that however sharp and heartfelt their disputes, however keen their ambitions, they had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively… The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.
Our deliberations today are often lively and interesting. They can be sincere and principled. But they are more partisan, more tribal more of the time than any other time I remember. Both sides have let this happen. Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. We’ve all played some role in it. Certainly I have. Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason. Sometimes, I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague. Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.
I hope we can again rely on humility, on our need to cooperate, on our dependence on each other to learn how to trust each other again and by so doing better serve the people who elected us. Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio and television and the Internet. They don’t want anything done for the public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood. Let’s trust each other.
The success of the Senate is important to the continued success of America. This country – this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, restless, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, good and magnificent country – needs us to help it thrive. That responsibility is more important than any of our personal interests or political affiliations.” (NPR transcript, 7-25-17)
I’m saying that you could substitute the word “church” for the word “Senate” in his speech and it is all equally true and relevant if not more so.
I don’t want to talk primarily about you or about me, but about us. As a church, as a part of the worldwide body of Christ, as Americans, as citizens of the world. I want us to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” It is my prayer that “we will grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
July 30, 2017
Central Presbyterian Church