Home‎ > ‎Sermons‎ > ‎

"Being the Church in this Moment" by Rev. Andrew Warner - Plymouth Church UCC, January 27, 2019

posted Jan 28, 2019, 3:22 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Sometimes new occasions bring out new skills, hidden aspects of ourselves we didn’t know.  Certainly, that’s what happened to me as I left Israel a few weeks ago.

Friends in Israel hired a taxi to pick me up after our dinner to drive me to the airport.  Many taxis charge 300-400 shekels, but this service would only ask 200 of me. So, I went to dinner with friends.  Kosher Chinese. During dinner, the driver called a few times because he had trouble finding the restaurant; then finally, he called to say he’d arrived.

I went out with my friend Jody, who talked to the driver in Hebrew, confirming the ride to the airport.  I had carefully saved my last 200 shekel note, the exact amount I’d need for the fare. And so, I was off with my driver to the airport.

Back at the restaurant, my friends got a call from the driver.  Where was I? And that’s when they realized I’d gotten into the wrong cab, not the one we’d hired but a random one from the street.  But since my phone didn’t work in Israel, I didn’t know it.

We arrived at the airport.  I collected my bags. And I went to give the driver my 200 shekels.  What’s this? The ride costs 400 shekels but for you, friend, I’ll only charge 350.  I thought of all the other cabbies who had tried to overcharge me in Israel. Tired of it, we got into an argument: my insisting he’d been hired for 200 and him insisting that he knew nothing of the deal.

I gave him the cash I had, said I’d see what I could do in the airport, and went off with my bags - straight to the Delta check-in.  When my friends learned how it played out, they decided I handled it like an Israeli. New moments teach new lessons.

What new moment do we face as a church?  Not just as Plymouth, but as the Church? How can we live what we will sing this morning:

let us bring the gifts that differ

and in splendid varied ways

sing a new church into being

one in faith and love and praise.

Often when it comes to talking about the future, and our adaptations to it, people make bold pronouncements, grand visions, or scary dystopias.  And yet, it can be hard to predict the future. Just think of Teresa May: as a conservative minister she advocated for Britain to remain in the European Union but now she’s leading her nation as it crashes out.

Fifteen years ago, a group of analysts at the National Intelligence Council, a think tank for the NSA and CIA, developed a set of predictions about what the world would look like in 2020, an unclassified report into what they hoped and feared as they looked ahead to 2020.  They described four possible scenarios. The first they called Davos World, one in which economic growth slowly and steadily raised the living conditions of people around the world. Another, Pax Americana, predicted America becoming the unchallenged leader of a peaceful world.  In one or the other scenario, the authors did caution that Muslim immigration to Germany might present some policy challenges. Fifteen years later, it's easy to see the understatement and misdiagnosis.

But two other scenarios sound more prescient.  The authors also foresaw the possibility an Islamic Caliphate would arise and, in their scenario, predicted the caliphate would fail at its attempt to control territory but would effectively undermine Muslim nations.  Sounds about right. And even more accurately, the authors predicted the way a “cycle of fear” would pull apart relationships between nations and within nations.

In detailing out the possibility of nations becoming caught in “cycles of fear,” the authors pointed to “Manichaean” thinking.  As they explained, “Many religious adherents - whether Hindu nationalists, Christian evangelicals in Latin America, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, or Muslim radicals - are becoming ‘activists.’  They have a worldview that advocates change of society, a tendency toward making sharp Manichaean distinctions between good and evil, and a religious belief system that connects local conflicts to a larger struggle.”  Fifteen years later, this religious Manichaeism went mainstream, as people, religious or not, turned to sharply divide their world into the good and the bad, the us and them, the blue and the red.

Predicting the future can be hard - even the people at the National Intelligence Council only batted 500.  Can prediction be anything more than a Sisyphean task?

Recently I heard Elizabeth Anderson speak to this problem.  She compared it to driving: too often we imagine that we must see the whole road, chart our course from this place to where we want to be in the future.  Much goal setting takes this as the imperative: develop the grand vision first. But, because our grand visions often miss key information, we fail. So instead, Anderson suggested we imagine ourselves driving at night.  We can only see a little ways in front of our car, still we move forward into the night.

This last year our congregation tried in a number of ways to discern a big, audacious goal for our congregation, a grand vision.  We didn’t discover it. And, at first, I felt disappointed: didn’t we need a grand vision? But then, I took to heart Anderson’s counsel: we move by faith into an unknown night.  And so, our council developed a series of modest goals - things we can actually do now - that carry us forward as a congregation. We’ll talk about these goals in our annual meeting after church today.

Before we do that, I want to think with you about the ways in which our faith gives us the light by which we move into the night, the light by which we drive.  And when it comes to the Church, nothing provides more guidance than Paul’s metaphor of us as the Body of Christ.

Paul, when he wrote to the congregation in Corinth, addressed a community deeply divided; people squared off into different factions - Paul’s people against followers of other disciples, rich against poor, Jews against converts; no one got along.  Beyond internal divisions, the congregation existed at a deeply anxious time, a grinding social revolution in which the expansion of the Roman Empire came as a loss of freedom and identity. And so, Paul wrote to a congregation divided and anxious, uncertain about each other and fearful for the future.

He spoke of the church as a body, the body of Christ.  His picked up on a longstanding metaphor for community life; at least since Aristotle centuries before people had spoken of communities as a body.  And we still do; the “body politic.” That political metaphor spoke to a sense of connection, certainly, but it also reinforced social hierarchies - the feet ought to obey the head.  Used that way, the metaphor of the body sanctified the power and control of the social elite, the head of society, over the working poor, the feet and hands.

But Paul, even as he used this metaphor, subverted it.  We read it so often we might miss it. “On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.” Paul doesn’t reinforce hierarchy; he mocks it.  The less honorable we clothe with greater honor. He means our privates. Instead of telling the poor to obey the rich; he mocks the well-dressed and perfumed elite as just being - I’m not sure how plain I can say it in church - “those privates.”

Instead of hierarchy (the poor obey the rich), Paul stressed equality (stronger together).  And really, through this metaphor made the point that we can’t be complete without the other.  Many Native Americans speak of a similar concept of all life being inter-related, mitákuye oyás’iŋ.

The equality Paul speaks of in describing us as a “body” takes on spiritual meaning; it's not a body, but the body of Christ.  Did Paul mean to echo the words of communion, “This is my body, broken for you”? Perhaps, but certainly he meant to connect how we live together with the shape and direction of Jesus’ own life.  What does it mean for us to be a crucified body? A body given for others? A body rejected? A body vulnerable? A body that faces off against the powers of the world? And a body of resurrection?  New hope? New life?

Taken as a whole, this metaphor of Paul describing the church as the body of Christ imagines us as a people of equality, connection, and vulnerability.

Our body of Christ faces challenges in being the church in this moment.  I’m thinking beyond the challenge of who will teach a Sunday school class or serve on Deacons; even beyond questions of how we connect with Millennials and the generation of young people coming up after the Millennials.  I think our biggest challenge comes - as the National Intelligence Council suggested - in the cycle of fear. That cycle of fear takes us through three emotions: first of course, fear; then, self-righteousness; and finally, separation; and then back around again to fear.

As I think about the role of our church in this moment, I think God calls us to be the body of Christ in a society caught up in a cycle of fear.

Fears abound; fears of the other and fears of what will happen to those of us treated as “other” in this society.  Fears come through so much of our political conversation; and so much of that conversation can make us fearful. In some ways, Americans have always held to their fears.  James Fallows, in an essay for the Atlantic, remarked on this when he returned from over a decade living abroad.  He noted that everyone talked about how “things were falling apart.” And that Americans have talked about this forever; the first sermon about the country going to hell in a hand-basket was preached in Plymouth Colony in 1628.  We’ve long had fears; and we’ve long turned those fears against people deemed “different” and “other.”

Which is why we need to be the body of Christ; to say across the chasm of our fears, “I need you.”  Just as the hand cannot be without the eye, I need you; to make boldly clear that we need each other, not in spite of our differences but because of our differences.

Along with the fears in our society comes a sense of self-righteousness, a confidence in our own goodness and the goodness of our side.  It comes out in personal interaction, like the Taxi driver and I in Israel, both so certain of our own position. And it comes out in our society.  Last week, I knew for certain the meaning of picture of a teenager standing in his MAGA hat while a native elder played a drum. I knew that smug look, a look I’ve seen on too many faces over the years.  I was certain. But now, as more videos come out, I don’t know. I still think I’m right about that smug look; and I am also a bit appalled at how quickly I could judge someone I don’t even know.

Which is why we need to be the body of Christ.  To say in a world of self-righteousness, “I need you.”  Les Ingram, who we mourned yesterday, said as we began working on racial equity, “We are all broken.”  In no way did he deny the reality of racism, but he held it in the context of the brokenness we all experience.  As the body of Christ - the body of vulnerability and brokenness - we can be honest with ourselves: we’re not always right, we don’t know it all, and we certainly don’t have it all together.

The cycle of fear starts with our phobias, deepens with our self-righteousness, and leads to our separation - the dividing of our world into good and evil.  All through human history, people have bonded by finding a common enemy: so often people afraid come together when they have someone to hate. We can think of all the people demonized at different moments - Jews, women, gays, immigrants, people of color.  And we know the violence that comes when a society decides to exclude, to separate someone.

But as the body of our crucified Lord, we come together in the face of that injustice, in spite of that pressure to demonize and separate the good and the evil.  We come together in the name of one demonized; made into a scapegoat. In a world where fear pushes us into our separate corners, we hear, “the foot cannot be without the head.”  The world needs us to be the body of Christ, pulling together despite the pressures pushing us apart.

What does God call us to be in this moment?  The body of Christ, committed to equality, working to bring people together.  May we answer that call and sing a new church into being. Alleluia and Amen.


Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's’ 2020 Project, December 2004.