Sadie Lawhorne, like her sister and several cousins up and down Cox’s Creek once worked at Lovingston Manufacturing. They operated sewing machines doing piece-goods work for places like Kmart. Some years back, with a global economy, the work shipped overseas, or was automated to the point where fewer workers were needed, the factory closed. Sadie and all the rest were laid off. A similar fate struck several other central and southwest Virginia communities. Such work never paid much, and the older the worker, the slower they became. Still they had managed to make ends meet and provide for their families. Now local residents are stressed over finding adequate jobs that at least afford a shot at making more than the minimum wage Amherst Walmart or McDonalds offered them. As Sadie and her neighbors listened to the stories about the presidential race. They grew hopeful that as a businessman, Donald Trump could bring jobs back to the area. This weekend they are excited about the prospects for work opportunities in their community.
In October my brother ended up in a respiratory step-down unit in the hospital. A life-long Asthma sufferer, the stress of his expanding small business -- a couple taco trucks and restaurant with another on the way -- got to him. Working long hours to make the business a success and not taking the time to rest or eat well, his body just about gave out. I spent three and a half days of the seven he was in the hospital with him. Eventually the breathing treatments, steroids and other meds began to work. Kelly has a partner and 10 employees in his business. So it is very small. One afternoon in the hospital, I asked him if he had insurance. “Obamacare baby,” he replied with a thumbs up. He told me before he and his wife had signed up a couple years previously they had gone several years without coverage. With talk of repealing the Affordable Care Act, my asthmatic, small business-owning brother is very anxious about Donald Trump’s presidency.
I tell you about Sadie and Kelly because they are good people, trying to make their way in the world. They don’t belittle others of differing opinion, they don’t despise someone who thinks differently. They’re just in dark places and hope for better.
These same differences of opinion reside in our congregation. For some there is great joy in this new administration. For others there is great anxiety about the future. So what can we say to one another about a divide that seems as deep and visceral as any in half a century? When the world around us seems to despise, belittle and ignore “the other,” what is to occur in the community of faith. Do we model the culture, or do we set a model for the culture? As people of faith, we have our faith, we have scripture, we have the Word of God. The lectionary readings for today, appointed some thirty years ago, is Isaiah’s promise of hope, Paul’s word to a divided Corinthian congregation, and Matthew’s tale of Jesus calling others to follow.
Isaiah’s word is to assure us that God will bring justice for the oppressed. Those who walk in darkness, the darkness of job loss, of threatened health care loss, the fear of terrorism, the fear of losing rights, take heart because there is a great light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The prophet’s promise of hope resounds through the ages to give courage to confront all those who believe might makes right and that some people are dispensable. In Matthew Jesus used this text to proclaim his ministry. Scripture is proclaiming the great light of the Lord shines in the little light of ours. Don’t hide it under a bushel. Fear of the dark and darkness is rendered obsolete with the coming of Jesus Christ. In the words of missionary and poet Amy Carmichael we pray: “Kindle us, kindle us now. Lord, we believe, we accept, we adore. Less than the least though we be. Fire of love, burn in us, burn evermore till we burn with thee.”
The second word for us this weekend is from Paul. Actually, it is several words: “agreement,” “no divisions,” “unity of mind,” and “united in purpose.” Paul had tried something in Corinth no one had really tried before, creating a diverse community. A community made up of rich and poor, Greek and Jew, slave and free. The community lacked the traditional bonds of ethnicity or family. Instead, Jesus Christ is the binder of this community.
Nonetheless, tradition and old patterns rise up to divide the community. The divisions were not theological, rather they were familial and ethnic. The people’s unity in Christ wavered, as they fell to the old patterns: “I belong to Cephas, the Jew,” “I belong to Apollos the Greek,” “I belong to Paul who got me into all this in the first place.”
Christian unity cannot be commanded, it must proceed from our “discerning the body” (I Cor. 11:29) that is, acknowledging that Jesus has bound us to himself. The only thing that could possibly unite the people of Corinth, indeed the people of Chester, is loyalty to and love of Jesus. Something, someone far bigger than every other mark of our identity must be the focus or we will quickly tear each other apart. That’s what outsiders notice, our unity or our disunity.
For Paul, the people of the faith community are to be “united in the same mind and…purpose.” But he does not imagine uniformity, he is not speaking of doctrinal orthodoxy or uniformity of speech or behavior. Later in the letter he speaks of the great diversity of gifts and ministries in Corinth.
The Greek Paul uses in verse 10 for the phrase “no divisions,” means “tearing apart.” It is the same word used elsewhere for mending fishing nets. The vision then, is of a diverse community bound in new way, through Jesus Christ. Whenever we are together, as Christians, it is never just you and me; Christ is always between us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in “Life Together,” put it this way: “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this. We belong to one another through and in Jesus Christ.”
So it is that we must recognize the ultimate significance of our baptism. In our baptism we were clothed in Christ. There is no longer slave nor free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. Say that mantra over and over to make it a part of who you are.
Which is of course to say, we’re stuck together. There is no escape. It is then, both our joy and our responsibility to look beyond ourselves, beyond our self-interests and our sense of self-righteousness to seek the will of God. It is not what I want, it is what God wants for all God’s people, for all God’s creation.
In his book “Beethoven for a Later Age,” Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takacs Quartet, describes what happens when things go badly and the group gets out of sync. “At the moment when we were supposed to begin playing the rhythm together I played a two-note figure one time too many. Unsure whether to accommodate my waywardness or ignore it in hopes I would catch up, my flexible colleagues effected a lethal combination of the two…We lurched along, now intent on managing one final chord together. After anxious glances around the group, Andras seized the initiative, an emphatic lifting of his bow followed by a ferocious nod signaling that whatever anyone else was planning to play, this would be his last note. Our final sounds were almost executed together – a mishmash of scrambled pitches faintly resembling the emphatic E minor chord written by Beethoven.”
Just like a string quartet, we in the church are to look at the same composition. It is a composition not of our creation, but of God. Scripture, Jesus and our confessions is the composition before us. Each step of the way, each note on the page tells us the story to tell. No doubt there have been, and will be, times when we are out of sync, when “atonal mayhem” results. However, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to come back together to the notes on the page and end on the same note.
So right now, this week, this weekend, with inauguration and marches, with hope and anxiety, as Matthew tells it, Jesus is calling us, as disciples, to acts of grace and hospitality and compassion. Jesus is calling us to humbly follow, together, the road he, and no other, has set before us. God’s kingdom is near and we are invited to follow Jesus and participate in sharing the notes of good news on the page. Let us, together, play the notes Jesus has set before us.
© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved