Sunday, August 12, 2012

Better to be kind than right

(I've got a new gig.  I'm the Sabbatical Replacement Pastor at First Church of Christ, UCC in Woodbridge, CT, from now through the end of October.  So you'll at least be seeing a weekly sermon from me.)

1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 4: 25 – 5: 2
Rev. Cynthia E. Robinson
First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
August 12, 2012

            Elwood P. Dowd is a hero of mine.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him, or his infamous friend named Harvey, from the movie and stage play of the same name.  Harvey is a six-foot 3 ½ inches tall, invisible rabbit who accompanies Dowd in his daily goings-on and his evening trips to the local pub.  Dowd—Elwood P. that is—goes through his life with a gentle smile and peace in his heart, greeting everyone with a kind word.  And most of Dowd’s demeanor can be attributed to the presence of his friend Harvey and the love of his mother.

            Years ago Elwood’s mother used to say to him, and she always called him Elwood, “In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” Well, for years Elwood was smart. Since Elwood met Harvey he recommends pleasant.  And you may quote him.


            In this morning’s scripture lessons the apostle Paul is also recommending pleasant over smart to the churches in Ephesus and Corinth.  Both faith communities were having problems getting along and to a certain degree, were difficult to recognize as followers of Jesus.  Most of the New Testament was written before 100 CE, so those listening to these words would have been Jews who followed Jesus as the Messiah and converted gentiles.  They would not call themselves Christians until much later.

            The early Church began as a house divided, and there was much heated debate as to how two seemingly disparate groups were supposed to live in community with each other.  Jews had been infamous for avoiding any contact with Gentiles or pagans, and they weren’t too crazy about Jews either.  Now they were followers of Jesus together—you could say the old guard and the newer members—and factions were being formed.

            Most of it boiled down to people wanting to live their same old lives in the way they were used to and be disciples of Jesus at the same time.  Jews were still following the dietary laws, circumcising their baby boys, and thought everyone else should be a good Jew if they were going to follow Jesus.  The people of Corinth had a reputation of being unruly, hard-drinking and having, shall we say, loose physical boundaries, and even though they followed Jesus, still kept up a busy weekend life seven days a week.  The church in Ephesus was comprised of Jews and gentiles, with the Jewish faction insisting that gentile converts be circumcised and follow a kosher diet, plus all the rest of the laws of Moses.  You can imagine how well that might go over.

            These letters address similar problems in different ways.  With the Corinthian church, Paul is pastoral to the point of being poetic.  Paul ministered this church for over a year, helping them get established, and showing them what it meant to live a changed life because of Jesus.  Sometime after he had left, Paul received word that things were falling apart in the Corinthian church; folks were going back to their old selfish habits.  1 Corinthians is Paul’s response to this fragmented faith community.  He begins by speaking in the first person, always a good place to begin when breaching a conflict.  Rather than pointing out their bad behavior, wagging a finger and saying “you”, Paul admits his own limits if he has not love.  And because he goes on so eloquently after, we know how much he loves this church.

            From Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message: 
   Love never gives up.
   Love cares more for others than for self.
   Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
   Love doesn't strut,
   Doesn't have a swelled head,
   Doesn't force itself on others,
   Isn't always "me first,"
   Doesn't fly off the handle,
   Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
   Doesn't revel when others grovel,
   Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
   Puts up with anything,
   Trusts God always,
   Always looks for the best,
   Never looks back,
   But keeps going to the end.
   Love never ends.

            I always find it interesting that many, if not most, couples choose this passage for their wedding service.  Though it appears to be a moving exposition on the subject of love, it was actually intended to soothe a congregation in conflict.  Which, when you think about it, are actually perfect words for a wedding; on the difficult days, when they are no longer newlyweds, couples will look back on these words hopefully for the strength they need.

The church in Ephesus gets a more stringent message:  Don’t.  Be angry but don’t sin, don’t use your anger for revenge.  Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.  Don’t make room for the devil in your life.  (According to Jewish tradition, the devil wasn’t some creature with horns on shoulder, whispering tempting thoughts.  The devil was synonymous with the cosmic forces of evil.  When we get angry and hold onto it, we make room for cosmic forces of evil—something we definitely don’t need more of.)  Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes we need the pastoral message of love.  Sometimes we need sterner stuff or what we call tough love.  But both are still love.  Neither is meant to be abusive or to be used to make a point.  The purpose of both of these passages was to unite a community, to remind them of their bond in Christ and of all Christ did to bring down walls of hostility.

Hear Eugene Peterson’s version of earlier verses in Ephesians:  “You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly.  You have one [Teacher], one faith, one baptism, one God and [Creator] of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all.  Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.”

This doesn’t mean we are all intended to think the same, act the same, feel the same, look the same, or speak the same way.  Because of Christ we are permeated with Oneness.  Christ reminds us who we are and Whose we are, whether we are gathered or scattered, worshipping in the meetinghouse or talking in the parking lot.

Elwood P. Dowd said it best when he described how he and Harvey spent their time together.  “Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, ‘We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella.’ Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do; their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates; all very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us.”
One could say the same about church.  We enter as strangers—soon we have friends.  We tell about the big terrible things we’ve done and the big wonderful things we’ll do, our hopes, and our regrets, and our loves, and our hates, all very large because nobody ever brings anything small into a church.  And then we’re introduced to a Friend, One who’s bigger and grander than anything we can offer each other.  And when we leave, hopefully we leave impressed.  And remember, there’s a little bit of envy even in the best of us.

But that’s a movie, we say.  Life isn’t like the movies.  Yet in trying to live out the gospel we wouldn’t say “But that’s the Bible.  Life isn’t like the Bible.”   And yet our actions do not always match our words.  Life, reality, is what we make of it, and each of us has a different take on it—one no better or worse than another.  We can only change a situation by changing ourselves, by trying to see our life together from someone else’s point of view.

So I’d like you to reflect on these few questions.  How have you been hurt by being a part of a church, any church, and what part of that hurt are you still holding onto?  What if during the passing of the peace we actually made peace by saying we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness?  In what areas of church life and in your own life are you insisting on your own way?  What makes it difficult for you to let go of the outcome and trust God?  And most importantly, what is it that you love about this church and keeps you coming back?

Will people remember us for our facts, for when we got it right or will they remember when it was that we were kind to them?  Apologizing does not always mean we are wrong and the other person is right.  It just means we value a relationship more than our ego.  That’s what love is, and that’s what love is for.  Amen.


Andy said...

Only you could link "Harvey" and the Church so successfully.

Welcome back, Cytnthia. :-)

Cynthia said...

Many have been accused of having an invisible friend called God or Jesus or Buddha or Krishna. A 6 foot rabbit? Who knows? :-)

Thanks for reading, Andy!