The mission of the Stanwood United Methodist Church is to love and honor God by committing our lives to Jesus Christ and inviting others to this commitment.
This is the sermon, Pastor Dan Sailer preached on January 26, 2014
“The Importance of Unity”
Text: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-17
Prayer: O Lord Jesus Christ, you prayed on the night before the cross for the unity of your church, that we might be one as you are one with God. Help us to hear your words that bring acceptance and understanding, forgiveness and mutual love. For we pray in your name. Amen.
“It all started long before I came,” said the Reverend Jason Kirk. Kirk is the fictional pastor of the Clyde’s Corner Church in a parable by Thomas H. Troeger. The founder of Clyde’s Corner, Cedric Clyde was a successful farmer at the turn of the century. To show his thanks to God, he paid for the building of the local church. Just before Cedric died, he donated to the church a lot of furniture for the parlor and one item for the raised chancel behind the pulpit: “a giant red horsehair couch whose rich color Cedric fancied would brighten the front of the church.” The huge chair featured massive curved arms and dark mahogany legs, each carved like the claw of a lion.
Time passed, and that couch became the subject of a bitter debate between members of the Clyde family who wanted to keep the couch where it was and newer members who thought the couch did not belong in the sanctuary. This debate sparked tension between the established members and the newer families who had moved to the country to get their children away from the drugs that were spreading into their suburban neighborhoods.
The new families had bought up foreclosed farms and built beautiful homes in the hills. They were accustomed to fine furnishings, and they detested what they had dubbed “the Victorian Leviathan” that dominated what otherwise was a plain but handsome church.
The Clyde family viewed the couch in a different light. Their farms had fallen on hard times in recent years. They looked at the couch each Sunday and fondly remembered that their great-grandfather Cedric had founded the church. Although their tractors were rusting in the front yard, at least the preacher sat on Cedric’s couch.
“Every sentence I put in the air,” Rev. Kirk said of his sermons, “I see them all weighing whether it is ammunition for their side or the other side. Here I am preaching about the love of God, and everything I say is filtered through a single question: Is the pastor in favor of the red horsehair couch, or is the pastor against the red horsehair couch?” Everyone knew that the church could not continue that way. The red couch was dividing the church.
The Apostle Paul knew about such divisions. From a careful reading of his letters, we discover that Paul’s major concern was unity within the church. When Paul entered Corinth it was the first time the Christian gospel was preached there. After winning some converts, Paul began a church which met in people’s homes. It is believed that Paul remained in Corinth for over a year. During his time with the Corinthians, he tried to teach them everything he knew about Jesus and the gospel message. The people did not have a written gospel or New Testament to read, so they had to depend on Paul for all their information about Christianity. While Paul was in Corinth, the church thrived.
The time came for Paul to travel to another city and begin the process all over again, of first winning converts, then starting a church. One of the things Paul taught the Corinthians to understand was that everyone has something positive to contribute to Christ’s work.
After Paul left Corinth, Apollos arrived and began teaching the people. It is believed that Apollos was a traveling merchant from Alexandria who was a deeply committed Christian. Apollos was a very persuasive speaker. The Corinthians were impressed with his “eloquent wisdom.” They were so taken with Apollos that they began to lose their focus. They formed cliques, saying, “I belong to Apollos.” Other groups formed. They said, “I belong to Paul.” Others said, “I belong to Peter (Cephas in some translations),” and still others said, “I belong to Christ.”
As the church began experiencing some problems. The newly founded church turned to Paul for help. Paul was very sensitive to the people and the issues that threatened to divide them. Paul first tried to build the people up, complimenting them for what they were doing well.
Then he gently admonished them about the quarreling that was causing division within this new church family, and leading them to lose their focus.
When we as the church lose our focus, we are in grave danger. Often what is most destructive to our churches are not major issues but people disagreeing about the old red couch, or whether or not to put cushions on the pews. Paul was sensitive to the people and their problems. Paul appealed to the believers, “…by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul wanted the Corinthians to focus once again on Jesus Christ, and the unity we have in Christ.
1. Seek Unity — Wherever a group of people gathers together, though, there are going to be issues of conflict. As much as strife may be deplored, we must learn not only to live with it but to deal with it in some constructive way. One way is to make unity a priority — seek to maintain the spirit of unity — value it, treasure it, nurture it in how we live in relationship with one another. Unity is important.
Now, what do I mean by the word, “unity.” For some people, I am sure, it means everybody thinking the same thoughts, doing the same things, and in general, parroting the same ideal. Too many people equate unity with uniformity.
That is not what Paul is asking for. Nor is it unity. Unity is nearly always held in the midst of diversity. It is a bringing together of many ideas, perspectives, personalities, and thoughts around a common, unifying, over-arching concern or theme. There is room for variation of opinion and feeling when one is seeking unity, so long as all that variation is focused on the common goal, the common core of all these variations.
Artists, for example, may have great differences of opinion about how to paint, about styles of work, about color and texture and a all kinds of other things they are concerned with. But their unifying theme is the love of good art. That is a driving compulsion with them — to create the best of all possible art. We are to have a driving compulsion for this kind of unity in Christ.
2. Mutual Respect — I have also learned from experience: that if we’re going to talk about differences of opinion, we can’t talk about them the way the world discusses such matters. The way the world discusses them is to polarize, then to demonize, then seek to defeat the other person, so that one side wins and the other side loses. We can’t do that. We have to practice loving one another by having mutual respect. And sometimes that leads to compromise or resolutions that are worked out through deep discussions.
I rediscovered this, again this past summer when we received the gift of a beautiful quilt and we decided to have a raffle. It was a gift of love, which took many hours to create and it was given to us to help our church raise some much needed funds.
So the idea of a raffle was put forth. Have some fun with it, create a little contest to win the quilt as a prize. And we discovered, we are not of one mind about whether or not a church should do raffles. Some thought there was nothing wrong with it, other thought it was a form of gambling and should not be something the church gets involved with.
And now looking back on this, if another beautiful gift was given to the church, knowing this difference of feelings about raffles, I would not choose to have one, but rather, seek some other way to raise funds with it — an auction or some other type of fund raiser that doesn’t divide opinion unnecessarily, something in which everyone could get behind. Because valuing unity is more important. It was a learning experience for me.
The church at Clyde’s Corner that was quarreling about whether or not the old red horsehair couch should remain in the sanctuary was able to solve their problem with Christ-like love.
Reverend Jason Kirk, said, “I got everyone in the congregation to agree that we needed to refurnish the church parlor.” He pointed out that Cedric’s couch was coming unglued and the veneers were splitting because of the extreme changes of temperature in the sanctuary. “I thought we could have the couch repaired and then placed in the parlor, which we keep at room temperature all week because some group or committee meets there nearly every day.”
The church at Clyde’s Corner came together.
All of Cedric’s relatives agreed to Reverend Kirk’s plan, and the new people donated money for the entire project, including the cost of framing a portrait of Cedric Clyde to hang over his couch.
Mutual respect creates the environment in which people can work out issues of disagreement. Everyone has something different and something positive to contribute to the church’s life. Paul understood this when he wrote to the Corinthians, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.” There are many gifts, and many messengers but only one Lord and Savior
3. Listen — Another helpful practice to working to maintain unity is to listen to the other person. The temptation is always to stereotype the other side, to make assumptions about what they are saying, based on the label we have placed on them.
There is a saying quoted in the Gospels, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That was said in reference to Jesus. It was said in order to get rid of him. It refers to where Jesus came from; because it was a lowly place, sophisticated people thought they could discredit him, get rid of him.
You didn’t even have to listen to what he said, because “can anything good ever come from Nazareth?”
I’ve heard people say, “He’s from the South, you know.” As if that took care of it, we don’t have to take him seriously now. Or, “She’s from California. No wonder she says those things.” Or, He’s a Democrat, or He’s a Republican; or worse, He’s a Baptist. Or a Methodist — “So what do you expect?”
We should listen to somebody even if you disagree with them, expecting it is possible that God will use that person to say something that God wants you to hear. It’s dangerous to believe that, it’s risky to act on that assumption. But the witness of the bible is that God uses unlikely voices, God even uses unwanted voices to speak God’s message to us. So listen to what people say, even if you disagree with them. Listen to them.
3. Forgiveness — Practice forgiveness. And then having said all this, even with our best efforts, when we are working on maintaining a loving, respectful unity, there will be times when we hurt one another, and that is when we need to practice forgiveness.
I remember when I was a 7th grader and my family was living in southern California. My sister, who was five years younger, was also afraid of the dark. We had a detached garage from the house with a 15 foot sidewalk connecting the two and it was dark walking to the garage. And in the garage we mounted a pencil sharpener.
One night, she had a friend over and they needed some pencils sharpened. I was busy with some activity of my own — playing a game or something when she asked if I would go with her out to the garage so she could sharpen some pencils. I didn’t want to go. There was nothing to be afraid of and I was busy.
Well, my dad over heard this and told me to go with her and her friend out to the garage. Now my dad was a master chief in the navy, and E-9. He had more seniority on his ship than anyone else except the captain. He was used to telling people what to do and they snapped to it. So groaning and moaning I got up and walk out with my sister, the garage light was already on, but it was that walk in the dark to it is why I had to go with her.
I used to tease my sister so much as children. And I guess she thought this was a time to retaliate and began to taunt me. Ha ha ha, ha ha — you had to do it. That was it! I said, ok, you going to act like that, I going back into the house, you can walk back by yourself. And I turned to leave.
Well, my dad walked out of the house and just arrived behind me as I was saying that. Punishment was sift and quick — I told you he was a master chief, and, I was sent to my room, in tears at that point.
The light had been on in the garage before we walk through the dark to get there because my brother was out there working on some project. He had heard and seen the whole thing and told my dad, my sister was taunting me, which he hadn’t heard.
I will never forget this experience. Because in a rare act, my dad came to my room and told me he was sorry. He had misjudged the situation and punish me without cause. “I’m sorry.” Those words are some of the most precious words in the human vocabulary.
They build forgiveness and help to begin to restore hurt relationships. “I’m sorry” — is also one of the best expressions of Christian love as we work on maintaining unity in any family, any organization, any church, any relationship.
So, we must also practice forgiveness. We forgive others and don’t force them to live as though they (or we) are always right! That leaves room for some give and take, some movement toward unity out of a common sharing, a sharing sometimes that is at completely opposite poles, but the beginning of a movement toward what will glorify Christ — without the need to run over and bully others who do not agree with us.
Conclusion — From the very beginning, the Church, including the church at Corinth, was a new kind of community. It is a community for reconciliation. The mission of the Church from the beginning was reconciliation. The charter for the Church, as far as Paul is concerned, is what he said to the Corinthians: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, … and calling us to be ministers of reconciliation; God making an appeal through us, so we are ambassadors for Christ.”
So that we proclaim, as Paul did in Galatians, “Now there is neither Jew nor Greek there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; but we are now one in Christ Jesus.”
Seek unity, in any relationship, work toward it by mutual respect, by active listening, and practicing forgiveness, that’s the heart of the gospel we claim. And as Paul says, “As far as it is possible with you, be at peace with all people.” (Romans 12:18) Amen.
Prayer: O Lord Jesus Christ, you are the head of the church, and we are your body here on earth. Help us, as the many parts of that body, to work together in the bond of unity. May love be our motive and focus to direct our lives. Give us a heart that treasures and values the love we have for one another, which is the heart of all healthy relationships. For we ask in your name. Amen.