Sermon: “Not Against Us But For Us”

“Not Against Us But For Us”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 30, 2018

Proverbs 25:21
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.

Mark 9:38-41
John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

I’ve really struggled this week on what to preach.

Last week, after I preached a sermon on Jesus’ call to bring those without power into the center to lead – to believe their stories – particularly the stories of those who have experienced assault or harassment – so many of you told me what it meant to you to have your experience affirmed in church. It turns out that there are a lot of us in this congregation who have experienced harassment, assault, and worse and who have been further traumatized by the lack of support and belief that comes with trying to report or to share our stories.

I believe strongly – so strongly – in changing this power dynamic, this default our society has condoned for far too long. And I believe strongly – so strongly – that Jesus, too, longs for the end of this poisonous cycle, and that the Gospels and the Bible are littered with reminders that it is our job as the church to hold up and help heal those who have been trammeled by the sins of people who misuse their power – and that it is our job to remake the very systems that created such an imbalance in the first place. Given the hurt in our congregation stirred up by the headlines over the past few weeks, I felt I couldn’t not preach on that call.

Yet I am also aware that my words were divisive for some of our congregants. That some among us felt singled out and sidelined because, while you may feel just as strongly about standing up for those who have been wronged, your political beliefs or your life experience leads you to a different conclusion about how to get there.

And I believe strongly – so strongly – that the church should model how good-willed, faithful people can believe in and work toward the very same biblical aims – to provide for the poor, to defend the vulnerable, to ensure equity for all of God’s people, to care for creation – but can do so from opposite sides of the political spectrum, through very different lenses, often disagreeing with each other about how to get there.

So I struggled this week.

And I sat with this lectionary passage where Jesus’ disciples come to him complaining, essentially, that someone is doing the very same healing work they’re supposed to be engaged in, but doing it outside the auspices of their group – same aim, different approach. (Let us note that the disciples had recently tried to exorcise some demons and had failed, which may have made them a little more sensitive about the whole thing.)

And Jesus, the leader of a fledgling movement that probably could have used someone to police outsiders who might endanger his ministry’s reputation, says this: “Do not stop him; for…whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever is not against us is for us.

This may at first seem like a bit of an incongruous choice for our sermon series on Jesus’ challenging invitations; it sounds like a marketing slogan more than something that might cause us to re-think our way of being in the world. But in a world so very quick to tell us there are two sides to everything: “us” – and “them” – in a country where the divisions between political parties have metastasized from relatively straightforward philosophical differences into virulent, dehumanizing rhetoric that makes it a shun-worthy sin to even suggest working with the “other side”; and in a culture where those political differences have spread out like an ink blot from Washington all across the land to the point where our opinions of a person can change in an instant upon learning their political beliefs – “Oh Lord, s/he voted for THAT person? I don’t think we can be friends anymore” – I think Jesus’ words are actually deeply radical.

They force us to move from a presumption of difference and distance to presuming that we are on the same side, just going about it differently.

It’s difficult, because it’s a complete 180 from everything our partisan media and echo-chamber culture feed us on a daily basis. They know that reinforcing our beliefs is a sure path to securing our continued attention, and as a result many of us have become addicted to the high of our own righteous indignation as we rail against the “other side.” (Guilty – this is why I have long since stopped posting on my personal Facebook page.)

But if we can presume instead that we are somehow, some way on the same side, we stop marshaling arguments for why others are wrong and start looking for unexpected ways we can work together. If we allow ourselves the mind trip of inverting our perspectives, it opens up completely new avenues and unblocks long-term impasses.

Think about it in terms of, say, abortion. We are used to thinking of two sides: pro-choice and pro-life, and certainly Facebook arguments and media portrayals of protests outside clinics and rallies in the streets of Washington reinforce that dynamic. But when we try to turn the telescope the other way, as it were, and look at the situation with the presumption that there is common ground, things start to shift. One shared goal I’ve preached about before is the desire to see that the lives of all children are valued – that children only be born who are wanted, and that all of those children be loved and cared for once they arrive in this world. Those shared goals can lead to things like better approaches to preventing unwanted pregnancy, or movements to provide stable, loving homes for children in the foster system.

Or think about it in terms of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. People of different religions and ethnicities have been taught since the cradle that the other side is unhuman, out to strip away their rights or murderously annihilate them. And yet – as we’ll see when we welcome the Arava Institute’s Dialogue Project the week after next – when young Jews and Arabs start looking at ways to preserve the fragile environment they all depend on, those divisions start shrinking and the common ground starts to grow.

None of this happens, though, without dialogue. None of it happens without us reaching out to someone on the “other side” and asking to hear – not so much their opinion, because we so often revert to entrenched talking points – but the life experiences that have shaped our values and the ways we’ve grown and changed in our thinking.

We talked at Bible study on Wednesday night about how Jesus had the advantage of a sort of supernatural X-ray vision – seeing into the heart of this interloping exorcist and assuring the disciples that he wasn’t at cross purposes to their ministry. We mere mortals, on the other hand, have to rely on old-fashioned asking and listening in order to hear what’s at the heart of someone’s beliefs or actions.

That brings me back to last week’s sermon and your reactions to it. I want to issue an invitation to every person who felt moved by my words – one way or another – to reach out to me and share your story. I say this because of two trends I have spent a lot of time thinking about this week. The first is, as I have already mentioned, the tendency as a victim to feel that an assault or harassment is your fault, and that if you come forward to share it you will be at best silenced and at worst publicly shamed and humiliated. There is of course good reason to fear this – as hundreds of thousands of people tallied their experiences in this week’s #WhyIDidntReport hashtag – but I want to assure you that if you want to tell your story, I will listen and you will not be judged; you will be believed.

The other trend is one I have noticed time and again over my first year here at PACC – and that is that we have a tendency to disagree but to do so in silence, or to do so anonymously. I can’t count the number of times, starting my first full week as your pastor and running all the way up through this week, when one person has come to me with a concern and shared that there are others who feel similarly but who won’t say anything about it because they are uncomfortable with confrontation, or feel like simply leaving the situation is the better option.

I dislike confrontation as much as the next person – just ask my supervisors from the clinical pastoral education program where we had four hours a week dedicated solely to confronting each other. I’m serious. They told us we couldn’t leave until we had discussed a conflict – or three or four. It was excruciating.

But I cannot underscore enough how much your silence when you disagree ties my hands as your pastor and impoverishes our community. I can’t address your concerns, explain the thinking behind a decision, or help others understand how you feel if you don’t share. I can’t accurately gauge how many people in the congregation feel about an issue when only one or two are willing to speak. And most importantly, I can’t learn from you – learn where we share common ground, or learn how we might be for each other instead of against each other.

I had the great good privilege this week of sitting down with some of you who strongly objected to elements of my sermon last week – of hearing what you found problematic and of listening to your experience being in the political minority here at PACC. In the course of our conversation, we discovered some significant common ground: wanting people who have been violated or excluded to feel truly welcome here, and wanting to build a community around something other than all thinking alike.

I want to thank those individuals, deeply, for your active choice to be uncomfortable in confrontation so that we could learn from each other. (And good news – we all agreed it was far from excruciating!)

I hope more of you will extend me the privilege of being honest about your experiences – whether you come to me recounting a painful history you don’t often share, or voicing what you fear will be an unpopular opinion. Because I can’t lead us to a place of common ground, of being for each other instead of against each other, if I don’t know how you feel.

Friends, I can’t promise I won’t ever preach on hot button issues or on topics that feel political to some of us, because although it’s not my job to tell you how to think, it is my job to help us think about how the Gospel informs every aspect of our lives – the public as well as the private. The Bible is just as consistently concerned about the state of our public life – about who holds power, and the consequences of the decisions made with that power – as it is about the state of our personal lives. And if we don’t talk about it, we are watering down the great invitation and challenge of our faith, robbing it of its ability to help us renew God’s world.

But what I can promise is that I will listen. I will listen to the pain and the frustration and the anger and the revelation and the hope that comes from individuals with sometimes vastly different perspectives and experiences living a common life together. And I will work to try to find us common ground.

Just a few verses after this morning’s reading, Jesus tells the disciples something curious: “If salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Jesus is reminding them of the paradoxical truth that it is not through going along to get along, not through watering ourselves down, not through all following the same approach that we will find peace – but that it is through our saltiness – our flavor, our boldness, our unique perspective – that we will find peace with one another, that we will make a delicious whole.

So it is my prayer that we might be willing to risk sharing and listening, changing and growing, learning and loving instead of shutting up or shutting down. I’d like to ask you to join me in that prayer – and while you’re at it, to pray for me as I work through all the various confrontation I’ve just invited, and to pray for PACC as we look for our common ground. It may not always be comfortable, but I am convinced it’s worth it – because that way lies the kindom of heaven. Amen.