A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 14, 2016.
On recent Sundays I have offered a couple reflections on our youth mission trip, a poverty simulation that was deeply meaningful for the twenty-five youth and five adult leaders who went. Our experiences on this trip were overwhelmingly positive, but I also learned something on that trip that, in truth, I found rather disturbing. I learned that we are a congregation deeply divided, pretty much split right down the middle, it seems.
This is contrary to the way we like to imagine ourselves as a church; like most churches, we like to think of ourselves as a unified community of Christ. Not that we all believe exactly the same thing, but on the whole, I was under the impression that First Church was free of the kind of disagreements, the conflicts, that can divide some churches. In fact, this was specifically communicated to me when I interviewed to be your Senior Minister about a year ago. And we will sing of this hoped for unity when we close worship this morning with the hymn, O Church of God United.
After all, isn’t this the heart of the gospel message that Jesus brings through his life and teaching, a message of peace, harmony and reconciliation. In fact, at the beginning of the gospel of Luke, Zechariah prophesies Jesus’ birth saying he will, “guide our feet in the way of peace.” And at the very end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus reveals his resurrected self to his disciples, standing among them and praying, “Peace be with you.” From beginning to end Jesus is all about peace.
Which is why this mornings’ text from Luke is so disturbing. Jesus says he does not come to bring peace, but to kindle fire, divide family member against family member. Jesus’ words aren’t just upsetting in the abstract. Some have had words like this used against them, used to hurt and exclude.
Fundamentalist traditions have used Bible passages like this to justify condemning those who are not “born again,” and rejecting gays and lesbians. Such churches would claim they are just following Jesus’ demands, dividing humanity for God.
Churches like ours often respond to such condemnation and division by promoting a warm, fuzzy, judgement-free, conflict-averse understanding of the gospel. This is reflected in the Open and Affirming statement that we adopted in 2012, and is named in the words we share every Sunday morning, No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
But is this really true? As I said, on the mission trip I learned of a division that could threaten to split our church right down the middle.
Kevin brought this to my attention. At the end of the first day of driving, we stopped for the night at a church in Ohio. There was still plenty of day light so Kevin suggested a game of kickball on the church lawn while we waited for pizza to be delivered. We all gathered, and Kevin took charge of dividing up the two teams. “Scrunchers over here,” he said pointing to his right, “and folders over here,” gesturing to his left. “Huh?” I thought, leaning over to one of the more experienced youth leaders, I asked, “scrunchers and folders, what does that mean?” “Toilet paper,” she said, “do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?” By the time I looked up, the youth were already separated into two pretty equal teams. I hurried to join my people, the Folders, on the left.” And what followed was a very competitive game of kickball, each side fighting to demonstrate its superiority.
I asked Kevin about this after the game and he told me that this was well known in youth ministry, that most groups split pretty evenly into folders and scrunchers.
So I can only conclude, First Church, that we are also divided. To demonstrate, let’s take a poll. Will all the scrunchers raise your hands please? Look around. Now all the folders? Look around. Anyone too shy or embarrassed to declare?
No matter where you are on life’s journey, gay, straight, bisexual or transgender, black, white or brown, old and young, men and women, scrunchers and folders, you are welcome here at First Church.
But is it really true, are all equally welcome without judgement?
What if you are a folder and you refuse to accept those who scrunch. In fact you regularly let everyone know that you are against scrunching? You truly believe that scrunchers are disgusting, an abomination. You find even being in the presence of scrunchers to be abhorrent, believing that God judges scrunchers harshly as you do. Scrunchers cannot be saved.
Would you, scrunchaphobic person that you are, find a happy home in this church? Probably not.
You might be welcomed here to a point, but if you began to make scrunchers feel ashamed for who they are, you might eventually be asked to leave.
In fact, someone once asked the question at an orientation for prospective new members at the church I was leading, “Is there anything I can do to get thrown out of this church?” Well, this was also an Open and Affirming UCC church that prided itself on welcoming everyone. But after thinking about it I said, if someone believed and acted in a way that made this an unsafe place for others, that could be a reason, that after all attempts at peace and reconciliation failed, they could be asked to leave.
This, I think, gets at what Jesus is talking about when he says he brings division.
Following Jesus requires us to make choices.
Jesus’ was a message of inclusion, he very intentionally demonstrated God’s love for women, people of races and religions other than his own, the mentally ill and people with physical disabilities, immigrants and the poor. Jesus very deliberately went against cultural and religious norms of his day.
By including those that the world around him excluded, Jesus separated himself and his followers from those that depended on the status quo, the religious, political, and economic leaders of his time.
Jesus’ message of inclusion itself excluded those (Pharisees, Romans) who rejected inclusion
Jesus has not come to validate us, make us feel good, tell us we are all OK, but to initiate God’s radical will on earth.
Anytime we say yes to one perspective we are necessarily saying no to another.
Can’t remain neutral, can’t claim to be both a scruncher and a folder. In fact Jesus says this a little earlier in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
But the division Jesus speaks of is not between rich and poor, Jews and Samaristans, or scrunchers and folders, but between those who seek to include and those who seek to exclude
We as a church, are not and cannot be all things to all people. We could pretend to be by just not talking about what we believe, by not taking a stand on behalf of those whom our society rejects. There are plenty of churches like this, churches that just don’t talk about anything they feel could be “controversial,” cause conflict and division. But not talking about it does in fact take a side. By not being specifically inclusive, we end up supporting an exclusive status quo.
In choosing to follow Jesus in particular ways we are affirming some and identifying others as being outside the norms he represents.
Does that mean we all have to believe the same thing? Does that mean we can’t still be learning and growing? Does that mean we can’t have doubts and fears? Of course not.
For example, what if we worry that Muslim immigrants might be terrorists? Does following Jesus mean we can’t express that fear? Of course we can and we should. But a belief that all immigrants, all Muslims, are categorically less-than and outside God’s favor is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. It’s not. And holding fast to such a belief, being unwilling to critically examine such a belief, would itself separate one from the community of Christ.
Following Jesus doesn’t mean we can’t engage those whose beliefs exclude, scrunchaphobics for example, this doesn’t mean we can’t treat scrunchaphobics kindly, but it does mean we can’t assume every perspective is equal and equally deserving of respect. Perspectives that seek to exclude should be called out and challenged.
This stance is central to the gospel message of Jesus Christ and, I believe, is essential to our identity as a church, as First Church Simsbury. This, is who Jesus calls us to be, even when it leads to conflict and division. Amen.