All Is Level At the Cross
Matthew 10:40–42 and Acts 13:1–3; 14:8–18 | Fourth Sunday of Easter |April 26, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN
There was a chart going around the internet that is pretty depressing in my view. It shows how much America has grown polarized politically over the years. It starts out in the 1950s with red (Republican) and blue (Democrats) mingling together in one giant blob. As the decades pass, the blob becomes a little less of a blob until you come to today. There are now two perfect spheres, one red and one blue. There is hardly any overlap.
In the years following World War II, Republicans and Democrats tended to have a lot in common. This was so common that some political scientists thought this was bad for democracy. The American Political Science Association released a report that called for the two major political parties become more distinct so that people had a choice in their elections. The political scientists got their wish over half a century later. Democrats and Republicans are probably the most distinct they have ever been. Is it good for democracy? I’m not so sure.
In 2015 two modern political scientists, Steven Webster and Alan Abramovitz release a new paper that describes our very polarized society. According to the two, politics is driven more by fear of the other political party, than love of your own party. As Republicans and Democrats live more and more separate lives away from each other, the more the opposite party is feared.
This polarization has also affected how people think about certain issues. The days of the pro-choice Republican or the pro-life Democrats seem to be over. Those who are pro-life are now Republicans and those who are pro-choice are Democrats.
Last December, a report on the uses of torture since 9/11 was released by Senate Democrats. Republicans didn’t participate in the report, so what was released appeared to be one-sided. Torture became a partisan issue. Republicans were certain that this was necessary because of the ongoing threat from terrorists. Democrats were adamant that torture never worked and that the other side was not simply wrong but sadistic and evil. The consensus that torture was immoral was lost. Republicans sought to defend the CIA, Democrat sought to condemn them. There was no work down to try to keep this from happening again.
Each member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1949–2012 is drawn as a single node. Republican (R) representatives are in red and Democrat (D) representatives are in blue, party affiliation changes are not reflected.
This polarization has seeped into every facet of American life. I’ve been interested in seeing how our churches respond to this growing divide and the church is basically following the world. Conservatives worship in conservative churches with Liberals going to liberal congregations. On issues like sexuality, there is little middle ground. Conservatives think that liberals don’t respect the Bible, choosing to follow current fashions instead of the basics of faith. Liberals think Conservatives are bigots, quick to shut out anyone that doesn’t agree of them.
This week’s texts are scattered. There is a lot things going on in just a few verses. In Matthew we have Jesus talking to his disciples about how it matters even if all you do is give someone a cup of cold water. Acts 14 has the story of Paul and Barnabas as they travelled to Lystra, and how the townsfolk thought the two were gods visiting the town.
But I want to focus this morning on Acts 13:1–3. It’s just three verses and it lists some of the leadership of the church in the city of Antioch. At first glance it just seems like a lot of names, mostly of people we don’t really know. There’s Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul also known as Paul. What’s interesting is that all of these people have different background. We have Lucius of Cyrene, who is probably a non practicing Jew since there was no temple in town. Then we have Simeon who is also called Niger, possibly a North African. Then there was Manaen. He had some kind of connect to Herod Antipas the current vassal king of Israel and the killer of John the Baptist. And let’s not forget Paul. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen a deacon who worked to feed the widows and orphan.
If you want to talk about a diverse congregation, this was it. There were people from different cultures and questionable backgrounds and yet they all worshipped together. It was this rag-tag body that prayed for Paul and Barnabas as they sent them on their missionary journey.
We like to talk about how diverse our congregations are, but for the most part, they tend to be very homogenous. Whites worship with other white people, African Americans do the same. Churches tend to be made up of people who share the same political persuasions. Even we think we are making a bold move, like welcoming LGBT people, in many cases the church already believes this and there is little if any dissent. It is just too easy to make a church look like the world outside: a place where people of different backgrounds fail to connect with each other.
Which is why this roster of leaders in Antioch so fascinating. Here is a church that shows that the resurrection changed everything. Here is a church where the walls are torn down. Here is a church where a new people emerge, a place that can really say e pluribus unum; out of many, one.
What held this diverse group together was Christ and the Holy Spirit. In the heavenly economy, that was all that mattered.
When I look at churches or hear my fellow colleagues today, I see a church that is a lot like that chart I was talking about earlier. I can gather that if someone of a different political persuasion came to a church of the opposite ideology, they would immediately find out that they weren’t welcome at church. In fact they would be more feared than anything else.
God is calling the church to be a place that is a colony of heaven, an example of what God’s kingdom is like. It is a place where people might disagree on various issues, but they know they are united together in Christ. In a society that is becoming more bifurcated, there is a need for a place where people can see each other as a child of God.
A few weeks ago, while I was in Michigan, I received word that a member of Lake Harriet Christian Church in Minneapolis had died. His name was Bob and he and I didn’t always see eye to eye, especially on one big issue. For a few years during seminary, I interned at Lake Harriet and got to know Bob and his wife Barb. There was a meeting after church one Sunday where I was asked to serve on a church board. I had to be voted on by the congregation. When the vote was taken, there were a lot of ayes and one “no.” This angered many people in the congregation. Specifically, they were mad at Bob because he was the only “no” vote. As we prepared to leave, Bob came up to me and asked if we could talk in private. We walked into another room and Bob started talking. He knew the vote was coming up and prayed that God would help him as he made a decision. In the end, he didn’t feel that God was saying that Bob should change his mind. He asked God more than once and the answer seemed to remain the same. As he was telling me this, he started to cry. Not just one tear, but sobs. He believed it was important to be in relationship with me regardless of who I was and he felt called to follow what he believed God was calling him to do.
I never forgot that moment. It was a holy moment, because at that moment what bound us together was not our agreement on the issue of sexuality, but our faith in Christ.
This is what the church is called to be. We are called to be a gathering of diverse people who are held together by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
I don’t know if we will ever become the bipartisan society that we once were. But I do believe that we, the church can be a colony of heaven and show another way of living, showing a place where God is loved, where strangers and enemies become friends and where we eat bread together. May this church be that place, for the sake of Christ and the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.