Friday, October 10, 2008

Sermon for October 5, 2008 -- World Communion

Core Values: Embracing Diversity
Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 5:1-5; 12:1-8

Imagine going to a performance of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. As you listen for those familiar opening notes, you realize that there is no harmony. All of the instruments play the exact same notes just the same way. And all the instruments are - no offense, Adam - tubas. It would be awful. The fact is we love diversity. We want what diversity produces in something like a symphony. We love diversity when it comes to grocery stores and TV programming, and vacation options and restaurant menus, and of course, financial investing. Don’t forget to diversify that portfolio.

We are sometimes blinded to the fact that diversity is a fact of life, deeply embedded not only in humanity but in natural systems and in the very fabric of the universe. Diversity makes life interesting. If every house on the block looked the same, if every restaurant served the same food, if everyone talked at us for hours in a monotone about things we already knew -- well, then life just wouldn’t have much life at all, would it? Diversity makes whole systems possible: You need diverse parts to make a bicycle. A barrel of handlebars won’t do the job. An ecosystem needs diverse species, making up complex food chains and cycles that keep the whole thing going. Our entire economic system with all its different jobs and products and services and forms of exchange is all totally dependent on diversity.

Diversity is key to resilience. If all our corn is genetically identical, and a virulent bug attacks it, it may all be killed off. If our corn is genetically diverse, then some of it will succumb and some will survive. The survivors will reproduce, resulting in greater resistance to that bug. If everyone depends on one mega-corporation for a monopolized product... If everyone uses the same operating system for their computers... If all the production facilities use the single most efficient form of production... If all the commuter trains are put out of business so all commuters must drive... If we all get our electricity from a single grid with no distributed local energy sources.... we make ourselves vulnerable to the collapse of the single things we all depend on. This is what freaked people out about Y2K -- that it would knock out some basic central systems, triggering a catastrophic domino effect. This is a nightmare for terrorist emergency response planners -- that terrorists could knock out a vital link in some technological system that we all depend on, for which there is no good alternative. Alternatives, diversity -- even redundancy -- are key to resilience.

Among us humans, diversity is virtually infinite. Our diversity is a resource. In particular, we can tap our diverse strengths -- skills, aptitudes, forms of intelligence, experience -- in ways that make us much more powerful than we could ever be separately. This is a fundamental principle of modern social organization: Make a lot of diverse specialists, producers and consumers and then connect them up to exchange information, services and products.

In short, we need diversity. We thrive on diversity. We love diversity . . . except when it comes to life in church. We shy away from diversity when it comes to people. Some church growth experts will tell you if you really want to grow a church you’ve got to take into consideration what they call the homogeneous unit principal. It says that people like to be with people who are like them. Therefore, to grow your church, target people that are just like you. And build in a comfort zone in the church that will not be threatened by racial or cultural or socioeconomic diversity. We want people to look like us, think like us, believe like us, and behave like us.

Thinking about diversity brings up too thorny issues. One is that too much diversity can be a bad thing – at least when it come to civic engagement. Robert Putnam , the liberal social scientist of Bowling Alone fame, researched the effects of diversity on community life. As a self-professing liberal who favors diversity and multiculturalism, he came up with some surprising results. Putnam found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer. The greater the diversity in a community, the less people give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in settings where people are more alike. In more diverse communities, he says, there is a general civic malaise. Levels of trust are not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.”

On the other side of the issue, lack of diversity can lead to a pursuit of false purity. In extreme cases, those who are different will be excluded by elimination. If you don’t think this happens in churches, then you have forgotten despicable preachers like Fred Phelps who preach that all disasters in America are the punishment for tolerating gays. Phelps goes as far as to say God hates all gay people. I’m guessing there’s not a lot of diversity in his church. He’s an extreme example of the pursuit of false purity. It comes from a belief that the source of evil lies outside of a person. We sometimes forget that evil also lives inside a person in an impure heart.

One can easily be snared by the trap of exclusion. In fact, think about the enormous number of words in the English language that we have to describe exclusion: omission, segregation, apartheid, banishment, deletion, deportation, discrimination, elimination, exemption, expulsion, expurgation, rejection, and removal. We can ban, bar, blackball, blacklist, boycott, delete, drop, disregard, eject, excommunicate, expel, forbid, isolate, omit, ostracize, overlook, prohibit, reject, segregate, separate, shun, and shut out.

How many words do we have to describe inclusion? If we are talking about the inclusion of people, we have only a handful of words: embody, embrace, encompass, incorporate, and involve. Why is this the case? One reason may be that exclusion is simple. Once we reject others, we don’t have to deal with them any more. No change. No hassle. No worries. Inclusion involves a great deal of thinking, and listening. Inclusion requires time and energy. Inclusion requires change.

Here at TCC, our statement of core values declares that we want to grow a church family that embraces diversity within a safe, positive, and nurturing environment. We desire to move beyond simple tolerance toward genuine understanding. We recognize that all people are free to make choices regarding their own personal and spiritual journeys. In short, we are committed to building a diverse, loving community of believers in Jesus Christ. We are committed to diversity. Why? Because God is committed to diversity. Look at the creation out there. God has made petunias and porcupines. God has made mitochondria and mountains, rivers and rutabagas. God loves to display the diversity in creation. God is so committed to diversity that God’s own self is diverse too. We call it the doctrine of the Trinity The reason we have a doctrine of the Trinity is because of all these stories in the Bible that show us God being and acting in very diverse ways. In our first scripture lesson, Isaiah describes God as Israel’s King and Redeemer, the eternal LORD of Heaven’s Armies – unmatched in power and wisdom. In our reading from Romans, Christ brings us into a place of privilege where stand confidently and joyfully before a God of grace. In other passages, the Holy Spirit is sent by God to give us wisdom and comfort. Scriptures like these led our spiritual ancestors to say Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. Yet, they have their own personalities, separate enough to interact with one another. Diversity lies at the heart of God—different persons in a unity of love.

The apostle Paul thinks that the church ought to reflect God’s unity and diversity. He talks about the church as a single body made up of excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts. Just like in the human body, every part of the church needs every other part. They are all interdependent. They need each other. Just like the human body, so it is with the body of Christ. There are different parts, they all play a needed function.

All this gets us to a place that might be somewhat troubling: God is not one single, solitary, self-sufficient monarch on a throne issuing orders that must be followed. If God is a Trinity, God’s being is community, and the different persons are dependent on one another. That’s why we try to use different kinds of language for God, when we pray, when we sing hymns or when we write all those words in the bulletin. It’s easy to get stuck with just one image, or one word even. Are we stuck thinking of God as the old grandpa in the sky – or a mean judge waiting to punish you? The doctrine Trinity helps shake us out of that sludge.

How do we embrace diversity in ways that honor God and one another? I think it begins by finding unity in diversity. We look for common ground, universal threads that bring us together without demanding that we all be the same. Today is a good start. One expression of openness to the presence of others is found in the Lord’s Supper. This meal is the time when we celebrate how God makes space for us by inviting us in. The Spirit who produces community is the Spirit of God. So, we must be transformed spiritually before we can sustain relationships that are healthy and empowering.

When God embraces us, we must make space for others by inviting them in – even our enemies. Today is World Communion Sunday. As we come to the table today with the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters in this world, let us envision Christ in front of us, leading us toward a greater unity that celebrates our diversity. We may celebrate in different ways, but we share the same meal. We are truly one loaf, and on this day, we all observe the breaking and sharing of that one loaf. As we partake in this meal together today, let us give thanks and pray for the restored unity of the church as we struggle to really be the diverse Body of Christ!

« “The Diversity of God,”
« “A Diverse and Loving Community”
« “Diversity is as big as the universe,”
« Volf, Mirosalv. Exclusion and Embrace. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.
« DeYoung, Curtiss Paul. Coming Together: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1995.
« Law, Eric. Inclusion: Making Room for Grace. St. Louis: Chalice, 2000.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...