Here is the sermon I preached on July 1, 2012. I weave together the vision statement that I have proposed for South Church (see previous blog post), this clip from the new HBO series, The Newsroom, and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15. This is an example of how our vision statement might be used as a touchstone for conversations and growth.
“Our Vision, Our Song”
Those of you who are on the church mailing list should have received the July issue of our South Church newsletter, The Voice, in the past day or two. If not there are copies on the desk outside the chapel. In my monthly column I propose a vision statement for South Church. A vision statement is meant to articulate where we want to go as a church, what we would like to become. I offer these words for prayerful consideration and discussion, “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” I hope this captures the diversity, hospitality and grace we seek to embody while also calling us to respond to a hurting world. I am planning to preach a sermon series on this vision in the fall, but I thought I would introduce it and give it a little work out this morning.
In The Voice I write of the hurtful divisions that wrack our world today. Families, communities, our country, indeed our world are ripped apart by differences in beliefs and practices. Nowhere are these differences more visible and acute than in our national politics. Battles between Democrats and Republicans have never been so bitter or divisive. This vitriol was all on display this week when the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the health care legislation proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress. Of course I have opinions of my own with regard to the various issues that face our country and our world. I too take sides. But more than anything, my heart just hurts at the brokenness among and between people on all sides who I believe to be good, created in God’s image.
I love this country. I was walking down my street this week and saw that some of my neighbors had put out their American flag in anticipation of the Fourth of July. When I came home that day I was pleased to see that Lourdes had the same idea and had retrieved our flags from the basement for placement in our garden. My love of country aside, I sometimes worry that patriotism, or more correctly nationalism, contributes to division. All sides in public policy disputes claim to be on the side of God and country, implying that anyone who disagrees is not a good Christian or a good American.
A friend shared a transcript of a speech from a new show on HBO called The Newsroom. Jeff Daniels plays news anchor Will McAvoy. In this episode McAvoy is part of a panel discussion with a liberal and conservative pundit. A female college student asks the panelists, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” McAvoy hedges, not wanting to take sides. But the moderator presses him and he responds:
“It’s not the greatest country in the world professor, that’s my answer.”
He turns to the liberal pundit, “The National Endowment for the Arts is a loser, yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paycheck but he (referring to the Conservative pundit) gets to hit you with it any time he wants. It doesn’t cost money, it costs votes, it costs airtime, it costs column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so smart, how come they always lose?”
He then turns to the conservative pundit and continues, “And with a straight face you’re going to tell students that America is so star spangled awesome that we’re the only ones in the world that have freedom? Canada has freedom. Japan has freedom. The UK, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Australia, BELGIUM has freedom. So, 207 sovereign states in the world, like 180 of them have freedom.”
“And you,” he now directs his attention to the young woman who asked the question, “sorority girl, just in case you accidentally wander into a voting booth one day there’re some things you should know. One of them is there’s absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re 16th in literacy, 32nd in math, 14th in science, 50th in life expectancy, 49th in infant mortality, 3rd in median household income, Number 4 in labor force and Number 4 in exports, we lead the world in only three categories: Number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined, 25 of whom are allies.
Now none of this is the fault of a 20 year-old college student, but when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what you’re talking about. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore. Enough?”
This is tough talk and I realize that this is a heck of a thing to share in a sermon on the Sunday before the Fourth of July. First, it may sound like I’m being hard on this land that we love. And second, we might well ask what any of this has to do with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Well, the answer to both these questions comes back to the vision statement that I am proposing for South Church. “South Church bridges the differences that divide our world to become one Body of Christ.” Nationalistic claims in general, and the claim to be the greatest country in the world in particular do not aide in bridging differences that divide our world, especially when there is evidence that this is simply not true. I should say that I spot checked the rankings in that speech and even adjusted a few numbers based on what I found, so while The Newsroom is a fictional show, these statistics stand up.
Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy says that the first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is one. We might also say that the first step in bridging the differences that divide us is to tell the truth, most especially to tell the truth about ourselves.
This morning’s lesson from Second Corinthians speaks directly to this issue of bridging differences. In his letter Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to give to the church in Jerusalem. Corinth and Jerusalem represent a central division in the early church, a division between Gentiles and Jews. The founding members of the church in Jerusalem were Jews before they chose to follow Christ, while the Corinth church was made up of Gentiles, or non-Jewish Christians. There was lots of conflict in the early years of the church about whether Gentiles could even become Christians. Maybe the arguments about whether Jews or Gentiles were better Christians can be equated to our present day battles about whether Democrats or Republicans are better Americans. The Gentile Christians in Corinth were wealthier than Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem so Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church to collect an offering to support their struggling brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. Paul is “testing the genuineness of (the) love” of the Corinthian Christians by asking them to overcome their judgment and distrust and give to the Jerusalem church. Listen again to his words to the Corinthians, “I do not believe that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”
These early Christians were just as divided around matters if ethnicity, nationality, class and beliefs as we are today and Paul made it his mission to bring them all together in Christ. Paul seeks to bridge the divisions that divide the world to form one Body of Christ by asking the Corinthians to set aside their judgments to find a fair balance between their needs with the needs of others.
These lessons apply to each of us today just as they apply to our church. As we examine our lives and our church we are called to tell the truth about ourselves, even when it hurts, and seek a fair balance between our needs and the needs of others. Since before my arrival at South Church the tradition here has been to conclude worship on this Sunday before the Fourth of July with the hymn, This is My Song. The words give beautiful, poetic expression to the vision of a church that bridges differences that divide the world to become on Body of Christ. I close with these words:
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, though God of all the nations,
a land of peace for their land and for mine.
This is my prayer, O Ruler of all nations;
let thy reign come; on earth thy will be done.
In peace may all earth’s people draw together,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, though God of all the nations;
myself I give to thee; let thy will be done. Amen.
Please share your thoughts, not only about the sermon itself, but about the use of the proposed vision statement as a focal point for our community.