Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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First things first today. I’ve missed you, too. Not just the kids. I missed all of you. It was good to have time with my family in Michigan, and it was good to reunite with friends in Kansas City. So, thank you for the gift of time away to do just that. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t also say: thank you for the gift of letting me come back—even if this morning’s excerpt from Ephesians makes for a rough return to worship. It’s a tough text, not because it’s particularly complicated; it’s a tough text, because it’s pretty darn clear. Mark Twain is the one most often credited for saying, “Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they don’t understand. What troubles me are the things I do understand.” The implication, of course, being that if we understand what the Bible asks of us, well, we have no excuse for not doing our very best to live by it, to follow the instructions it lays out for us. Ignorance is one thing; willful disobedience is something altogether different.

The first three chapters of this letter are full of prayers and theology about the nature of Christ and our relationship to him. Chapter four is where it all takes a turn with a rather unassuming word: therefore. “Therefore.” Some scholars argue this is the most important word in the entire chapter, since those nine little letters encompass enormous implication: because we have life in Christ, this is how we are to live now. “Therefore” declares that faith is not just an individual, intellectual exercise. Faith is also a communal, embodied practice, and under absolutely no circumstances can the two be teased apart.

It’s something like this, and I beg your forgiveness in advance for telling you this story. When my brother and I were much, much younger, a few days before Halloween, perhaps in anticipation of the excitement to come, I talked him into letting me dress him up as a clown. I am no longer clear on all of the details. I think that’s for the best. But somehow, the process of dressing him up involved me chewing a giant wad of pink bubblegum and rubbing it into his hair. It did not take me long to realize the error of my ways. It did not take my brother long to realize the error of my ways. It took our mother less than no time at all to realize the error of my ways. I must have been a very thorough hair dresser, because no amount of hair product, no amount of peanut butter, and no amount of patience from the good people of Fantastic Sam’s could remedy the situation. My brother’s hair and that wad of gum were inseparable. The only way to get rid of the gum was to cut his hair. One simply couldn’t exist without the other.

            When it comes to faith, individual reflection and communal, intentional action are much the same way, in that one simply cannot exist without the other. Not when it comes to the kind of faith that God desires for us and from us. And according to Ephesians, the central act of a life of faith is seeking unity. Bearing witness in every thought, word, and deed, to this truth: whether we like it or not, we are in this together. We are one united body of Christ.

            Now, let me remind you of something—something you probably already know but nevertheless bears repeating—unity and uniformity are not the same thing. Living with one another in a way that maintains “the unity of Spirit” doesn’t mean we all have to look the same, dress the same, talk the same, think the same, believe the same, vote the same. We actually don’t have to be the same at all. We can be as different as night and day, as different as cats and dogs, as different as tofu and prime rib, as different as New York City and Kansas City. We can be absolutely nothing alike and still be united. Because you don’t have to be just like me for me to understand that you have value and worth, because you are made in the image of God and you are God’s own beloved. That alone knits us together.

            Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was known for many things, but high on that list, he was known for ending every television show by looking at the camera and saying to every child (and adult) watching, “You are special. And I like you just the way you are.”

            In recent years, especially, some voices have criticized this approach. Let a kid grow up being told they are special, these voices say, and they will grow up thinking they are better than everyone else. What this critique misses, though, is that Mister Rogers wasn’t telling one kid they were special. He was telling every kid they were special. And if everyone is special then there is no one less-special than anyone else. Are you following me?

            Mister Rogers, who, by the way, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, believed this: If we understand, at the very core of our being, that we are worthwhile and beloved, we will understand, at the very core of our being, that everyone else is just as worthwhile and just as beloved. And I’ve become convinced that is where unity really begins.

            You may have heard this story before. Maybe you’ve seen the YouTube clip, or some of you may even have watched it live on television as it happened. In the fall of 1997, Fred Rogers received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Emmys. He was given a chance to say a few words, and this is how he used his time. He said, “So many people have helped me come to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away, some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you. 10 seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.” [And I’ll watch the time for you.]

            After those 10 seconds, with more than a few in the crowd wiping tears from their eyes, Mr. Rogers went on to say: “Thank you for encouraging me, allowing me, all these years to be your neighbor.” And he returned to his seat.

            As one attendee said later, “The man was receiving an award for unparalleled levels of achievement, and when he sat back down again, we realized he had used his time to make all of us feel good about ourselves, and to help us remember that we are who we are less because of what we have done, and more because of other people.”

            John Calvin, the patron saint of Presbyterians, wrote that humility is the first and most important step toward unity. I have to tell you, I’m a little worried we have lost track of what humility really is. A friend of mine taught me volumes about this. For the longest time, he said, he thought humility meant thinking less of yourself. “You know, don’t draw attention to yourself; keep your eyes down. Don’t worry about little ol’ me! You go and live life. I’ll stay down here in the shadows.” But, my friend says, “That’s not humility. That’s just high maintenance.” And low self-esteem. And, it is not faithful. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves. Humility is thinking more about others. Humility is seeking and seeing the good, the real, the human, in all those around us.[1]

 

            We live in divisive times. Page through any magazine or newspaper, browse through any online media outlet, or just eavesdrop on the subway, and it will take all of two seconds to confirm that unity is not our defining characteristic right now. We have made it a daily practice to define ourselves not by who we are, but by who we are not—setting ourselves apart from those who are not like us.

            I visited a new doctor the other day. She was perfectly pleasant, until she heard I had just moved from Kansas City. She said, “Oh, but you’re not from there, are you?”

            “No,” I said, “not originally.”

            “Good thing,” she said. “You know how native Midwesterners are—they’d never make it here in the city. You know?”

            “I do know how they are,” I said, and simply left it at that.

            The truth is, we all say things like this. Can you believe those conservatives? Can you believe those liberals? That new guy who was just hired—did you see what he brought for lunch? Did you hear what the Methodists decided at their annual conference? Can you believe there are some Presbyterians who don’t ordain women? Can you believe there’s a Presbyterian church in New York City where every single clergy person is female?

            Have you ever thought, I could never work with someone who…or, I could never be friends with someone who… Fill in the blanks however you want. I’m guilty of it as well, most usually when I hear someone lamenting church because of some painful experience they’ve had. “I’m not like those Christians,” I want to say. “Some of us are better than that; nicer than that.”

            It’s an understandable impulse for all of us. It’s just not the most faithful impulse. The author of Ephesians tells us to speak in love, to remind us what binds us together is, in fact, always stronger than what sets us apart. And the sooner we see that, and act like that, the better off this world will be. Because that, the author says, is the true mark of Christian maturity. We can no longer afford to be like children, the author says. We have to grow up and be like Christ, who finds a way to work with every bone and ligament, every muscle and every fiber of this crazy thing called the one body of Christ.

            You know, there’s absolutely no consensus on who wrote these words other than that it wasn’t Paul. It wasn’t Paul, but it was someone who sure paid attention to Paul, because these words to the church in Ephesus sound an awful lot like the apostle’s words to the church in Corinth, when he writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” And Paul puts these words right smack in the middle of a very familiar passage, one that reads, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…”

            Love is everything good, but love require us to admit that we are not living in childish times, and love demands that we grow up and leave childish ways behind us. There is simply too much at stake.

            Another Presbyterian pastor I know just returned from a mission trip with her youth group. It is summer, after all. They just returned from visiting a particular place along the border between southern California and Mexico, where a tall and sturdy fence divides one country from another, one group of people from another. “It’s a painful thing to see,” she said. “But, if you show up Sundays,” she said, “you see something remarkable. A worship service takes place on each side of the fence. There is a pastor on both sides, but the liturgy is shared.”

            “And, at the end,” she said, “together they share words from the gospel of Mark: What God has joined together, let no one separate.”

            May it be so. Amen.

 

[1] My friend and colleague Rev. Tom Are, Jr., one of the smartest and wisest Presbyterians I know, as evidenced by how often I quote him or reference him.